Around the country, families are coming to the same realization: A lot about this holiday season will be different.
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The family is sitting at the table. People eat together. Family portrait, parents and two children. Room interior with furniture
Credit: Aleksei Naumov/Getty Images

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and this year will be the 28th I will have cooked. I have done Thanksgiving for as few as eight and as many as 24.

We have tried and true recipes — some from my grandmother, some that are mine alone, some from friends — but the cadence of our day and the meal are fairly static. There are things that are unique to us, and the way we like to gather and celebrate. We eat dinner at dinner time, usually starting with champagne and nibbles around 6, instead of midday like so many, preferring one big evening meal to a big afternoon meal and a late evening snack of leftovers.

The menu is fairly old-school traditional: roasted turkey, herb-and-onion bread stuffing, classic mashed potatoes, with some twists that keep it a little modern, like a spicy raw cranberry salsa with ginger and lime and cilantro, and sweet potatoes cooked in miso maple butter. 

I start cooking in October, since most of the dishes do perfectly fine in the freezer; turkey and mash are made day of. But essentially the rest of it is made bit by bit over the course of six weeks and then thawed for reheating, making my day as hostess infinitely easier. I get to take either a nap or a hot bath mid-afternoon on Thanksgiving Day thanks to these advance preparations and am always grateful for that bit of self-care. 

We gather, we eat, we drink, we are thankful. And in the past, we have been blithely accepting of how simple our celebrating is, how easy to pull in friends who need a place to be, to add places at the table, to pivot when in-laws or other traditions conflict for anyone. After all, Thanksgiving happens every year.

From 24 to 4 at the Thanksgiving Table

But this year, for obvious reasons, it will be different. Because this year we will not be able to gather and celebrate together in person. When talking through logistics, it just didn't make any sort of sense to try. And my guess is that for most people, this realization is dawning on you as well. The need to shift, to tighten, to reduce. 

Smaller feels antithetical to Thanksgiving, which is at its core a holiday of abundance. More food, more family, more fun. Platters heaped high, children flopped on whichever adult is closest, couches full of napping family "watching" football cheek to cheek. That is a Thanksgiving I look forward to seeing again, but it will not be the Thanksgiving of 2020.

When we talked to my family and realized that for myriad reasons it was going to be better for us all to mark the day separately — for me to take my parents some pre-made sides a few days before to accompany the turkey breast my mother will make for herself and my father, for us to have a family Zoom call after dinner to connect with my sister and her family — it really hit me that I was losing "my" holiday this year.

My parents will have a small romantic Thanksgiving for two, which they have never done ever, and they will have just celebrated their 52nd anniversary.  My sister will be with her family, all the grown kids home, and making some new memories. 

My husband and I will be celebrating with our predetermined winter "inside pod," ourselves and one other couple who are also childless, and who are committed to the same safety and health protocols as we are following, and the only people we are allowing inside our home for safe socialization until this is over. 

Thanksgiving for four is a shock to my system. My husband asked if I wanted to just do the usual thing, just at a smaller scale, to try and maintain the connection, but I realized that I didn't want to do that at all.

I want to do a Thanksgiving this year that doesn't just make lemonade from 2020's lemons. I want to make lemon cream tart. 

I want to be thankful for the smaller scale, to embrace the ability to create a day that I cannot create when filling every chair at the long table, to celebrate the intimacy that will be inherent in this season's celebration.

So, we will be skipping the pumpkin soup and cornbread madeleines that are the usual pre-dinner snacks, in favor of a generous platter of raw oysters, which my husband and our friends dearly love, and are way too expensive and time consuming for a large party.

My husband will make his family's cornbread dressing instead of the sourdough stuffing my family prefers, and the green beans he canned this summer from his mother's recipe instead of the creamed spinach or roasted Brussels sprouts that are the usual vegetable offering.

We will gather earlier in the day, in our pajamas or sweats, watch football, maybe a movie. Our friends will help peel potatoes and form the rolls, and we'll serve the meal right out of the recyclable foil pans everything will be reheated in, giving ourselves the gift of no serving pieces to wash. 

And I will make a lemon cream tart instead of apple pie and pecan pie, because I love a bright citrus dessert to finish a heavy rich meal, and this year, we are only attending to the desires and honoring the nostalgic pull of four people, and all of us really love a lemon tart and don't really care about the other stuff.

Embracing the Reality

While it is absolutely alright, even necessary, to take a moment to mourn the loss of that ease of gathering, because it is a loss on top of so many others that we all have suffered, a sacrifice we will have to make on top of the teetering pile of sacrifices already made, there is also a need to celebrate the opportunity to make this one special for its own sake. 

Does no one in your family really love turkey? Make a prime rib roast, or get a pile of crab legs. Do you usually celebrate by going to someone else's home, maybe only able to bring one dish to share, but you love to cook? Make the Thanksgiving meal you have always wanted; use the recipes you have been earmarking for "someday."

Do you usually go elsewhere in part because you do not like to cook? Our restaurants are suffering mightily, and many of them will be packing up Thanksgiving dinners to go, so pick one that you want to stay open through this and support them with your business. Then, let yourself off the hook.  

And there is nothing wrong with Thanksgiving pizza if that is what your heart actually desires. 

Small gatherings can mean an upgrade, too. You can break out the good china and silver when you aren't feeding a crowd. You can drink better wine. You can order the oysters.

Or, if you usually have all the fancy stuff out, this year you could go with paper and plastic, and no one will give you the side-eye.

You can cook together when there are only a few of you, instead of needing to shoo folks out of the kitchen where they are always underfoot. There is no need for a kiddie table, or food that accommodates any dietary challenge besides those in your immediate circle. You don't have to give the house that frenzied deep clean, you don't have to put on makeup, unless those things give you pleasure.

You can make a plan that includes time for an afternoon nap or hot bath, which is a tradition I highly recommend starting and then keeping for the future if you can manage it.

As we face down Thanksgiving, and the other holidays that will follow close on its heels, I strongly suggest you have a chat now with your chosen group, and keep the focus not on what you cannot do this year, but what opportunities this unique year is presenting you. Figure out what might make each person feel like this year was special for its own sake, instead of bereft of what it won't be. Plan a day that you will remember more for what was fun, delicious, and meaningful than for what it wasn't. 

And remember above all else to be grateful. Not just for the strength and resilience that has gotten us this far, but for the promise that every sacrifice we make today is banking joy for what our future holds. And hopefully, a year from now, we will be able to be making our usual plans, putting all the leaves in the table, booking airfare to go to family, filling our freezers with pre-made dishes or researching vegan options for Cousin Claire, and we will be able to look back at how far we have come, and be extra thankful.