Op-Ed: Thanksgiving disrupted: This is the year to embrace doing something different

Thanksgiving is the mother of all family dinners and a potent ritual. Figuring out how to celebrate it during the pandemic requires inventing alternative traditions.

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The country’s dilemma about what to do about Thanksgiving this year is reflected back to me hour after hour in my work as a family and couples therapist.

My office is like the Butterball hotline but with the focus on get-together angst during the pandemic rather than turkey roasting. If you hacked into my Zoom sessions, this is a representative sampling of what you’d hear:

“What if this is the last Thanksgiving with my 92-year-old mother and she could have joined us, but we played it safe?”


“How should I tell my kids they can’t come to Thanksgiving? What if this becomes a permanent disruption and they never come back?”

“What if I invite my hardy family members to an outdoor Thanksgiving but some other relatives find out and are insulted?”

Since I’ve struggled to figure out my own Thanksgiving plans, I don’t presume to have the answers for my patients. Instead, I commiserate with them about everything we’ve already missed this year — the vacations postponed, and the special occasions and holidays we’ve had to celebrate apart because of COVID-19.

A wistfulness shows up in their wish to embrace Thanksgiving, which has all the ingredients of a nourishing time — cooking together, lolling around the table with a surfeit of high-caloric food, the leisure to tell and retell family stories and the healing laughter that follows. Now more than ever we could benefit from reconnecting with our loved ones and welcoming everyone home.

Thanksgiving, the mother of all family dinners, is a potent ritual. With rich aromas and special foods, it connects us to our childhoods and to previous generations, often through the passing down of family recipes. Thanksgiving makes us feel that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves, when we see our extended family and remember our past gatherings.

But any vibrant ritual also has to be able to adapt and flex to accommodate change. We already do this every Thanksgiving to some extent, since a year’s passing inevitably brings new developments — a daughter will be spending the holiday with her partner’s family, a spouse serving in the military is stationed overseas, a grandparent has died and left an empty seat.


It is the push and pull of continuity on the one hand and change on the other that gives Thanksgiving its texture and vitality. But this year, the change is being forced upon us since we’ve been advised to have small gatherings, if we gather at all.

After previously declining to issue firm guidance for holiday gatherings, the CDC recommends that Americans just stay home this Thanksgiving.

Nov. 19, 2020

So maybe this is the year you hold a virtual cooking class to make sure those near and dear know how to properly prepare a turkey. It could be a perfect opportunity to record family tales via Zoom, without signaling to your relatives that you want to preserve their stories before they die.

This year I’m especially grateful to be part of the Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit initiative based at Massachusetts General Hospital that offers families ways to increase the frequency and quality of their shared mealtimes. I’ve guided many of my patients to our Thanksgiving Virtual Care Package, which offers loads of downloadable games and activities for families who will be celebrating apart this year.

Calling the whole dinner off is another option. Think of it as a sabbatical year where you step away from the holiday to gain perspective. Or think of the sabbatical in terms of its biblical roots, which refer to taking a year off from sowing the field. Leaving the holiday fallow may mean that next year it emerges more robustly or in a different form — the dinner could be rotated, like crops, among hosts in future years.

One family that shared their Thanksgiving story with the Family Dinner Project is stepping away from their traditional Thanksgiving and choosing to celebrate with a day of favorites — they’ll be ordering Peking duck, making ice cream sundaes and baking a family recipe of eggnog cake that they’ll share with neighbors.

Thanksgiving is a feast, but this year I’m thinking of how I can celebrate this favorite holiday with less abundance. I’m planning a quick, chilly, outdoor New England picnic with one son and his partner while Zooming with many of the other usual guests. We’ll play a round of the guessing game Top Four while warmed by two fire pits. Maybe I’ll get some baking tips during a virtual cooking session with my other son and his wife.


As the mother of my oldest childhood friend used to say, “Sometimes, enough is as good as a feast.” What will be your “enough” this year?

Anne K. Fishel is an associate clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, co-founder of the Family Dinner Project, and director of the family and couples therapy program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is the author of “Home for Dinner.”