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Opinion Why we are canceling our family Thanksgiving trip this year

Turkeys at a poultry farm in Erlanger, Ky., last week. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg)
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I finally gave up our annual Thanksgiving trip.

I’m 50 years old. I have spent exactly one Thanksgiving without my parents and just a handful away from their Virginia home. It is easily the best holiday. Theme: gratitude. Religion: n/a. Gift requirement: none. Signature event: eating.

The party starts when my husband and kids and I arrive on the Friday before Thanksgiving, continues through the arrival of my two sisters and their families, and, I assume, stops dead the moment our minivan pulls out of my parents’ drive on Sunday. Ten days of togetherness and traditions: restaurants we always visit, stores we always go to, friends we always see.

Any good holiday contains an element of “always,” that mysteriously powerful substance that can cast a warm and happy glow on basement accommodations, nonstop dishwashing and an eight-hour drive with three kids.

“Always” is so powerful, in fact, that I insisted we could go this year, though I knew the fall would bring a third wave of covid-19 and though even at the pandemic’s ebb — this summer when my younger sister had a baby — we hadn’t risked a family gathering.

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But I was convinced that we could still have our Thanksgiving. It would just take extra planning. We all work from home, except my father, but he could teach remotely for an extra week; my high school daughter could go remote, too. The three kids coming from college could quarantine for a week, and then each family could get tested before hitting the road. Our particular road crosses five state lines, but surely if we packed enough food and brought N95 masks and clicked our heels together three times…

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Wishful, I know. I was determined to have my always. My little sister shared a blog entry detailing the risks and possible mitigations for a safe holiday. My big sister started a spreadsheet with everyone’s school schedules and testing options.

As expected, infection rates around the country started rising, fast, even in places where the virus had been under control. Toward the end of October, Anthony S. Fauci gently suggested that “if you are in a situation where you have people who are vulnerable ... you might want to not bring them together into a big dinner.”

Surely he wasn’t talking about us and our 75-year-old parents, right? He was speaking of people who might not take the time to build a spreadsheet or calculate the optimal number of days between potential exposure and testing. We thought people who ate in restaurants were nuts! We tsked-tsked over photos of partying teenagers! We were different!

The next day, the New York Times ran an editorial, “Holidays must look different this year. Lives are at stake,” with the subhead: “Be reasonable, Kate.”

I’ve thought a lot about what makes a holiday work. We tried to start one from scratch in my house, and it’s harder than you would think. You can enlist your family and invent the traditions, you can even decree the “always,” but there’s one thing you can’t do on your own: make it universal. No homemade holiday can replicate the feeling of knowing that everyone in the country is celebrating at the same time.

Thanksgiving does that better than any other American holiday. Participation rate: nearly universal.

Almost everyone in America celebrates on the same day, cooking more or less the same foods. Everyone in America is riffing on sweet potatoes or consciously eschewing sweet potatoes. Everyone in America is making too many pies or eating too much pie or wishing there were more pie. Even though we roast lamb at my parents’ house, we keep turkey on the menu, too, because cooks across America are all struggling to cook the dark meat through without drying the white meat out, and I like to struggle along with them. I don’t want to exempt myself, because the feeling of shared experience gives me joy, even if turkey itself does not.

I finally gave up on our trip when I realized that gathering 16 people from four different states in the middle of a pandemic, in addition to risking lives, would risk destroying that Thanksgiving feeling I love: that feeling of sharing an experience with all of America.

Three experts from Johns Hopkins University's epidemiology department weigh in on best practices for those who plan to travel this holiday season. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

In 2020, our nearly universal shared experience is loss. I don’t want to try to exempt myself from that. Observing Thanksgiving properly in America this year means giving up the family and friends you want to see and hug and serve. It means giving up what you always do.

This year, we give up our always for the sake of everyone so that next year we might once again have both. If we do, I will be more thankful than ever.

Read more:

Leana S. Wen: It’s time to rethink how we celebrate Thanksgiving

Leana S. Wen: We should be just as careful about covid-19 in relatives’ homes as we are in grocery stores

Emily Oster: Covid-19 doesn’t have to cancel Halloween

James Downie: As a third covid-19 wave rises, Trump dawdles and Republicans hide

David Von Drehle: It’s been a year since covid-19 emerged. The world still isn’t ready for it.

The Post’s View: ‘Personal responsibility’ isn’t working. We need mask mandates.