clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How the pandemic could change Thanksgiving

From outdoor picnics to roommate Friendsgivings, people are finding creative ways to celebrate the holiday.

A group of people congregate outdoors for a meal.
Thanksgiving is a holiday rooted in the camaraderie of gathering, but the pandemic has changed our notions of safety.
Getty Images

Chelsea Murphree has always been friendly with her neighbors. In the three years she has lived in her apartment building, the residents developed mutually beneficial relationships with one another, in which they exchanged casual greetings or kept a quiet eye on pending packages and food deliveries — but nothing more beyond that.

This year, however, a neighborly Friendsgiving is in the works. The past eight months of social isolation helped bond the complex, which consists of roughly 10 apartments, occupied by mostly young professionals in their 20s and 30s.

“We’ve had people in the building play yard games and socialize in the parking lot,” Murphree, a 29-year-old Atlanta resident, told me. “That’s helped us get closer to the point where we now have a group chat and are talking about who’s going home and who isn’t, and if we should do a Thanksgiving dinner together.”

It happened “quite naturally,” she said. The building’s residents are aware of each other’s daily schedule and frequent guests, so it felt as if a base level of trust was gradually established between them. “We’re planning to do a small outdoor dinner the weekend before Thanksgiving,” Murphree added. “I think eight people said they’ll be there, and everyone’s bringing their own food so we won’t have to get too close.” If the weather takes a turn for the worst, the group will gather on a covered patio.

Thanksgiving is a holiday rooted in the camaraderie of gathering, but the pandemic has upended our collective understanding of safety. Our enclosed living spaces are no longer comfortably safe; they can be dangerous even if the crowd consists of family. What was once a sumptuous American tradition is now a game of logistics, of balancing individuals’ tolerance for risk and considering things like ventilation and whether family members need to quarantine before the holiday.

Thanksgiving appears to be a ripe occasion for superspreading events as some give in to their desires to gather, despite warnings from public health experts. However, many Americans plan to forgo Thanksgiving entirely this year, or significantly pare down the event into an intimate meal for their household, with their nearest family members or closest friends. There is no “the more, the merrier” sentiment this year. Rather, these celebratory decisions are being made with an air of caution, as the US faces a record number of Covid-19 cases.

“The pandemic is clarifying and deepening the bonds of who we consider ‘family,’” said Karla Erickson, a professor of sociology at Grinnell College. “Typically, Thanksgiving is meant to be a time where you broaden your ‘we.’ You go to dinners and meet extended family and chat with their kids and spouses, but people are now drawing a line around who they trust and want to celebrate with.”

Many working professionals like Murphree live hundreds or thousands of miles away from parents and relatives, which means a Thanksgiving meal is not just a public health risk, but a nightmare of logistical tasks: requesting time off work, finding a place to stay, and weeks of quarantine. Friendsgiving presents itself as a less stressful alternative; for some, it’s just another meal with housemates, a romantic partner, or one’s own social coronavirus cluster.

The concept of celebrating Thanksgiving with friends or “chosen” family members has existed for decades, but in recent years, Friendsgiving has garnered a reputation as a millennial holiday — a casual get-together with good food and vibes, rather than an over-the-top multigenerational meal.

“Millennials have developed a different sense of wealth, and it’s more about feeling connected and seen by those they’re close with,” Erickson told me. “I do wonder how the pandemic will change how we mark gratitude and community during Thanksgiving, and how the ritual of breaking bread will be altered.”

This year, Friendsgiving will be a very intimate affair for Emily Stephenson, food writer and author of The Friendsgiving Handbook, since she and her partner have just moved from New York City to Southern California. “I’ve avoided thinking about it for so long this year, since I’d always assumed that by late November we’d be able to be inside together,” Stephenson told me. “I’m just going to focus on the bare essentials, cook delicious food, and have a cozy long weekend. I just hope by next Thanksgiving we’ll be back to normal.”

The upward trend in Covid-19 cases has led some like Stephenson to reconsider indoor gatherings and to exercise caution when it comes to event planning. With little state or federal regulations surrounding the holiday, most public health decisions are being made at an individual or family level. California has prohibited personal gatherings of more than three households, emphasizing that “the smaller the number of people, the safer.” And Colorado and New York have also placed limits on gatherings in private residences to no more than 10 people.

Ina Yang, 27, has diligently tracked Covid-19 trends in her home of New York City, and while she is concerned about the impending surge of cases, she is grateful for the fleeting sense of normalcy a meal with friends can provide. “I’m trying to make sure if the situation gets really bad by Thanksgiving, then we won’t do it,” she told me.

It was her and her partner’s turn to host this year’s Friendsgiving potluck, and the four others they’ve invited are friends “with good judgment,” who have been isolating in their respective apartments. “There’s kind of an unspoken understanding around most social plans people have these days that we’ll go forth with all the precautions, but if things get bad we’ll cancel because safety is the top priority,” Yang said.

In warmer climates, there is the option of moving a Thanksgiving gathering outdoors, although that isn’t necessarily a foolproof measure against the virus. It has, however, encouraged people to celebrate differently and more creatively than in years past, making the event less formal and more spontaneous in both its dress code and menu. Elise Alvarez, an event planner in Palm Springs, California, offers luxury picnic set-ups for date nights and special event brunches, but recently pivoted to promoting Thanksgiving-themed decor.

“I pretty much leave the ball in my clients’ court, and I understand that Covid is on its rise again and people are being very cautious as they proceed with their lives,” Alvarez told me. “But the temperature here is really nice and it allows everyone to take their events outdoors.”

“It does look like people are gravitating towards more intimate celebrations,” she said. “However, I am doing whatever my client is comfortable with. If they want a party of 10, I say that’s doable, but I have to consider a little more spacing and how to create a big area where they have room to walk around and not be super close.”

Erickson, the sociologist at Grinnell College, is curious whether the pandemic will open up new social avenues for the holiday, since bars and restaurants have historically struggled to attract guests on Thanksgiving. That might change this year, she said, especially in warmer climates where outdoor dining can still be comfortable.

“Our home has begun to carry some dangers, even though it is a sanctuary of sorts,” Erickson told me. “Restaurants have altered their environments by migrating outside or installing better ventilation.”

There’s no question that Thanksgiving will be different this year. While we’ve previously had the luxury of celebrating with both friends and family and even attending multiple celebrations, the choice to gather is now fraught with risk. Depending on how long the virus lingers in our lives, this could impact our traditions, which are already constantly evolving alongside our social norms.

“I’ve previously wondered the question, is this meal even for us, or is it something we serve?” Erickson said. “How do we make sense of breaking bread during a public health crisis, and will we dramatically alter our rituals?”

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.