This story has been updated.

With three weeks left before Thanksgiving, many pandemic-weary Americans are still struggling with the details of how they will celebrate the holiday meant to bring people together.

The novel coronavirus is still surging, and families and friends are talking and texting about virus risk factors, which are real and complicated.

Health experts are urging people to stay home, warning that travel increases chances of spreading the virus that causes covid-19. A virtual Thanksgiving or Friendsgiving gathering won’t smell or taste delicious, but increasingly, people are realizing it is the safer option during the current crisis.

Reginald and Tara Paige, who have eight children, are planning a smaller family gathering this year on their patio — and on Zoom. Tara, who in April founded the 200,000-strong Facebook group “Black Women Who Love Outdoor Living Spaces,” is checking out grilled turkey recipes. Three of her children who still live at the family home outside of Dallas will attend in person, and maybe a few more siblings will join them. But the members of the family who cannot fly in will gather around screens rather than fire pits.

“We want to see our children, but in a pandemic, we have to think of each other,” says Tara, who just founded the Patio Chic (thepatiochic.com), an outdoor-living brand that grew out of her online community.

“It’s different and it’s harder, because it’s emotional. It pulls on your heartstrings,” she says. Reginald will begin the Thanksgiving meal as he always does, with a prayer, although this year, some of his kids will be bowing their heads on Zoom.

Having to change up a holiday that is known for tradition is taking its toll. “Many people are struggling and are either a bit in denial that it is going to look different this year, or feel sort of frozen and aren’t sure how to do it,” says Vaile Wright, a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago. “There is a tendency to overestimate or underestimate risk, particularly in situations where information is not well understood and keeps changing.”

The current official guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov/
coronavirus
)
says a lower-risk Thanksgiving involves a small gathering with only those who live in your household; other family and friends could be looped in virtually. The guidelines suggest having a virtual dinner and sharing recipes with friends and family. But what about the regulars who look forward to the bourbon pumpkin pie year after year?

“It is a loss, as the holidays are the time that we come together. But that is just not available this year. If individuals can start approaching Thanksgiving now with that expectation, that it is not going to look the same,” Wright says, “we might feel a little less of that loss.”

Planning might be the ticket. If Zoom or another videoconferencing platform will be the way you gather, create a strategy to make it work smoothly and to keep it fun. If your family likes to dress up for the holidays, get out your party dresses. If you like games, have a scavenger hunt or a trivia contest. If there’s a naturally bossy family member who’s also a planner, get that person to organize an agenda and send invitations. Ask tech-savvy family members to design a festive custom Zoom background (cranberries and hand sanitizer?) and help those who may not be adept at Zoom to sign on.

“It’s great to go into a virtual hangout with a plan,” says Taryn Williford, lifestyle director at Apartment Therapy (apartmenttherapy.com). “It sounds stuffy, but you need a moderator who will make sure everyone is engaged and having fun, and if you go off script, roll with it.” Consider involving everybody in “a shared ritual” by emailing ingredients for a cocktail or a recipe for macaroni and cheese. Determine whether you want to watch football, share stories and pictures, or get crafty. “Anything you can do to make a memory, this is the year to reinvent traditions, for sure,” Williford says.

A Thanksgiving Zoom can mean different things to different people. Some may want to dine together, while others don’t want to see Grandpa chomping on his turkey leg. Designer Rebecca Gardner of Houses and Parties (housesandparties.com), an event-planning and design company based in Savannah, Ga., and New York, says her clients are looking for help in uncharted waters. “In March and April, I thought the idea of a Zoom Thanksgiving was totally bizarre,” she says. But now, she’s figuring out ways to turn the day into a good party while also staying as safe as possible. She’s not a fan of eating together on multiple screens, though; do that before or after your Zoom call, she says. Find some party hats or sing a chorus of your family’s favorite song. Children could prepare a poem to read. “Build new traditions on top of your old ones,” she advises.

And there’s always the classic activity of dishing about the family. During the pandemic, more people have had the time to do genealogical research that had long been on their to-do lists. Terry Koch-Bostic, chair of the education committee of the National Genealogical Society (ngsgenealogy.org), says virtual celebrations could be a great venue to start a conversation about family history.

Koch-Bostic suggests two approaches to this. If you already have someone in your family who is interested in genealogy, ask that person to do a presentation and share any findings, documents and photos.

If there is no obvious candidate, someone could take the lead in putting together a presentation and encouraging family participation. Look online for help.

Many people pay to join Ancestry (ancestry.com), the giant subscription genealogical database. The NGS website provides links to many free resources (click on “NGS Learning Center”) for people just getting started and for those looking to build off current skills, Koch-Bostic says. You can learn how to build a family tree and find blank ancestry and family group sheets to fill out.

For a lively Zoom discussion, ask each family member to compile information they already have about different generations of family members. “You could plan a series of Zooms over the weekend to discuss different topics,” she says. “On one, you could share names and marriage dates; on another, photos.” It’s important to record the calls, she says, so the information can be captured later. This might also be a good time to interview the oldest member of your family for recollections of their parents and grandparents. The experience may become part of a new tradition. She suggests continuing the conversation during a Zoom Christmas as you start to build a family history together.

At Zoom headquarters in San Jose, the staff is watching how users are creatively adapting the videoconferencing tool that, before the pandemic, was primarily used in the workplace. Zoom recently announced that for users who don’t have an account, the 40-minute limit will be lifted for one day on Thanksgiving. Esther Yoon, group manager of product marketing at Zoom, is pregnant and has family around the world. This year, they will be connecting on Thanksgiving using Zoom.

A virtual Thanksgiving is obviously not the same experience, and everyone is tired of going to work, school and yoga in front of a computer. But something to be grateful for this year may be the fact that we can still be together in some fashion during a pandemic.

“You have a window into each other’s kitchens and can have conversations while you are cooking together,” Yoon says. “You can still see people smiling when you say what you are thankful for. You will see grandchildren, nieces and nephews and how much they have grown.” It’s still, she says, “bonding with your family.”

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