The coronavirus pandemic has spoiled Friendsgiving, Thanksgiving’s younger and cooler cousin famous for potluck-style meals among friends. While it is a wise public health decision to cancel Friendsgiving, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, experts worry that its absence may exacerbate loneliness among young people already isolated from classmates, separated from co-workers and longing for touchstones of burgeoning adulthood.
“I feel sometimes like my office is a Butterball hotline where instead of getting calls about how to roast a turkey, I get questions about get-together angst,” said Anne Fishel, director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. “Most or many people are going to feel a little more lonely this year, and I worry about that.”
Fishel said she is especially concerned for people who feel cut off from their families year-round and tend to struggle with feelings of isolation during the holidays.
Espinoza, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Richmond, found Friendsgiving to be the perfect remedy for years of feeling unwelcome at the Thanksgiving table. Used to awkward silences at the mention of anything queer, Espinoza realized by the end of her feast in a campus kitchen last year that there had never once been a lull in conversation.
“Now I am getting choked up about it,” she said. “I just felt this sense of calm, this sense of love.”
This year, her friends have all but emptied the campus or have quarantined in their own rooms for fear of spreading the coronavirus. To celebrate the holiday, Espinoza ordered a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store on Friday and split it with her dog.
“I decided for us that was Thanksgiving this year,” she said. “It’s just sad.”
Amy Green, vice president of research at The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youths, stressed the importance of Friendsgiving for many young people in her community. Green said that only one-third of LGBTQ youths live in a home where they feel supported and accepted by their family, with one-third hiding their identities and the other third experiencing outright rejection. In 2018, youth outreach to the Trevor Project increased by 20 percent the weekend after Thanksgiving.
“We know that LGBTQ people and LGBTQ youth in particular benefit from having affirmation and support,” she said. “So the idea of chosen family is not new. It has been a part of the LGBTQ community for a long time.”
Regardless of mental health ramifications, however, experts agree that Friendsgiving should be all but canceled this year. They caution that an event where young people gather indoors without masks before traveling home to see loved ones is precisely how the virus can devastate communities. Last week, as 1 million new coronavirus cases were reported nationwide, the CDC issued formal guidance urging Americans to celebrate the holiday virtually or within their own households. In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, D.C. and Montgomery County officials reduced the cap on indoor gatherings to 10 people. As of Monday, no more than 25 people are allowed to gather indoors or outdoors in Virginia, a decrease from 250.
Some young adults have shirked the formal guidance and gathered with their friends despite the public health implications. Others have negotiated with housemates to host smaller or outdoor events that may reduce the risks of contributing to the nationwide surge in coronavirus cases. Then there are those like Richter who say they have entirely called off Friendsgiving because of the pandemic and recent spike in infections.
It was not an easy decision for Richter, 34, and his friends to pause a tradition that has been formative to their development as adults. Ever since moving to D.C. as 20-somethings, the group has gathered each November to give thanks over turkey. As jobs and partners have changed, the stories they retell time and again have stayed the same (such as that one year their friend set a napkin on fire during dinner).
“This actual family dinner when we are all together, it made us into a D.C. family,” he said.
The friends, who normally see one another at least once a month, have not reunited since February.
Friendsgiving isn’t just for 20- and 30-somethings. Jessica Walton has turned the event virtual. The 58-year-old, who lives by herself in D.C., has spent the pandemic relying on a small group of neighbors who also live alone. They meet each Thursday, either virtually or outside, and order dinner from a restaurant. But they plan to uphold their new tradition remotely on Thanksgiving Thursday.
“We don’t have a household, we can’t go to a restaurant and sit outside the way some people do,” she said. “But we are doing okay because we have this routine.”
Friendsgiving this year may be replaced by a pandemic-friendly alternative: “Podsgiving.” The CDC encouraged people to spend the holiday with people already in their household. And for many young adults, their podmates are also their friends.
Michelle Chun, 25, and Sarang Kim, 24, canceled their trip home to Texas last week given the accelerating spread of the coronavirus. Instead of Kim’s annual “Korean American Thanksgiving mash-up” with 25 relatives and a round of post-dinner karaoke, the roommates plan to spend Thanksgiving together in their D.C. apartment.
“It’s different, but we can’t be too upset because of the external circumstances,” said Kim, in line for a coronavirus test last Wednesday. “At least we will be together,” she added, looking at Chun.
Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said it is especially important for people to reach out to their loved ones during this year’s holiday season.
“In this year of social distancing, of economic stress, of racial strife, of political splintering,” Gordon said, “it is all the more important that people have the opportunity to reach out and get social support from their friends and family and loved ones.”