For many of us, for example, the traditional Thanksgiving with lots of family members won’t be possible. That is certainly a giant constraint. But it also creates new possibilities. This year, it might be possible to go into depth with those you’re with, whether listening to stories from an elder, or teaching (or learning from) your children lessons about the country’s fraught founding and history. Individuals get lost in boisterous, 25-person shindigs. Introverts wilt. This year, we have a chance to build a holiday that is longer on signal, shorter on noise.
Many families are planning to gather on Zoom. Again, this is a constraint, but it is also a chance to try different things. Instead of just inviting those you’d normally eat with in person, invite others who would never be part of your celebration in a normal year — your host family from that year abroad, your relatives who invariably cancel the drive up at the last minute every year.
This year may be the year to go smaller with Thanksgiving and go bigger. Think of a Thursday with immediate family only, focused on depth; and a bigger-than-usual, noisier-than-usual, multistate, multilingual, international Zoom-based confabulation on Friday.
When things move into Zoomland, there is also a temptation to try to replicate the offline event in online form. This often just makes everyone sad and reminds people what a paltry facsimile the virtual is. Instead, do things you wouldn’t normally do in this online version.
Designate your guidance-counselor aunt as the family “interviewer,” and have her ask pointed and funny questions of family members. Or follow the lead of Sarah Canney, the owner of Rise Run Retreat. She usually travels to Pennsylvania to meet extended family and is instead creating a Zoom talent show. “There will be six kids under the age of 10, so we are encouraging them to get involved with something fun and meaningful to them,” she told me.
A great thing about IRL events is sidebars. At some moments, everyone is together. At others, two siblings living on different coasts go for a walk or a nephew teaches his uncle a new way to make guacamole. But you can bring the sidebar to virtual gatherings this year, too: a FaceTime cooking session with one other person, a virtual chess game, a siblings-only sync-watched movie.
The next stage of grief and dreaming for this holiday is asking who your “people” are this year. In normal years, that answer may be obvious to you, whether you celebrate in the more common way with family or have long done “Friendsgiving” instead. The way many, if not most, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving elevates one particular kind of love: family love and the love of family-like friends.