Facing a Lonely Thanksgiving? Try My 6 Ideas for Planning a Virtual Socially Distanced Celebration


Thanksgiving is traditionally celebrated with large family gatherings. We eat communally prepared feasts, share family stories, and spend hours indoors playing games, working puzzles, and watching televised sporting events.

Thanksgiving Is All About Family

Even more than Christmas, this holiday is about family, and most years millions of people travel thousands of miles to Grandma’s, or Aunt Harriet’s, or sister Ethel’s.

Two verses of the well-known children’s poem, “Over the River and Through the Wood,” written by Lydia Marie Child recall these poignant scenes:

Over the river and through the wood,
to see little John and Ann.
We will kiss them all, and play snowball
and stay as long as we can.

Over the river and through the wood—
when Grandmother sees us come,
she will say, “Oh, dear, the children are here,
bring pie for everyone.”

Covid-19 Has Changed Everything

But this Thanksgiving will be different. This year on November 26 my family – and many others – will be staying home. No traveling. No hugging. No kissing.

As much as we want to gather with our brothers and sisters, cousins and grandparents to share stories about this difficult year, it just doesn’t make sense to risk spreading the virus for the sake of a family tradition.

Families with children will stay home and the feast will be smaller. Adult children far away from home will celebrate in their pods. And millions of grandparents, including me, will be alone.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I don’t want to feel like a victim. I want to enjoy the holiday as much as anyone. We seniors are the grownups.

What can we do to help guide our families in ways that will make this Thanksgiving special, one we will remember as a positive experience instead of a tragic one?

We need to start by focusing on the intention of Thanksgiving. Although President Lincoln created the Thanksgiving holiday in 1863, the traditional First Thanksgiving in Plymouth was probably a traditional English harvest festival.

For as long as people have sown and gathered crops, there have been celebrations to mark the harvest. Life was perilous, and a successful harvest meant that the community was more likely to survive the coming winter. That message resonates with me every year, but especially this year. We are facing a perilous winter too.

Thanksgiving is about gratitude. Has always been about gratitude. And only recently has it been about turkey, cranberry sauce, and football.

The Benefits of Gratitude

Did you know that feeling grateful is good for you? In The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety & Grief, Madhuleena Chowdhury writes:

“Thanking others, thanking ourselves, Mother Nature, or the Almighty – gratitude in any form can enlighten the mind and make us feel happier. It has a healing effect […] Expressing gratitude, not only to others but also to ourselves, induces positive emotions, primarily happiness. By producing feelings of pleasure and contentment, gratitude impacts on our overall health and well-being as well.”

Chowdhury continues, explaining that keeping a gratitude journal, writing personal notes of gratitude to others, and receiving and displaying simple acts of kindness all work on different parts of the brain, reducing anxiety, improving sleep, and even reducing chronic pain. Gratitude is powerful stuff.

Let’s keep gratitude at the center of this year’s celebrations, and at the same time find ways to connect so that no one – grandparents or college students or new parents –  feel left out or lonely this year.

Let’s include one another in our gatherings by using technology and taking the time to plan activities together even if we are apart.

Here are six ideas you can try.

Plan Your Menus Together and Share Them

If there is one dish that everyone expects to see on the table every year, share the recipe among you so it will be on everyone’s table, wherever they are. Call one another and talk about your plans – what tablecloth will you use, what dishes?

If one or more members of your family are unable to prepare their own Thanksgiving meal, consider ordering one of the prepared meal kits from Harry & David, Cracker Barrel, Goldbelly or Williams Sonoma.

By the way, the main dish at that first American harvest festival would have been venison, not turkey, and the vegetables available at that time of year would have included onions, beans, spinach, cabbage, carrots, and pumpkin.

Corn was plentiful, but it would probably have been ground into meal and made into cornmeal mush or sweet pudding. There is no mention of cranberry sauce or candied yams with marshmallows.

Write Personal Notes

Write a note to each of your distant family members and ask each of them to do the same. You can write the notes while you’re waiting to hear election results and put them in the mail at least a week before Thanksgiving.

In your notes, tell your family how much you appreciate them, including details of how they are unique and what a difference they make in your life. Opening these notes and reading them can be part of the Thanksgiving meal, perhaps between the main course and the dessert.

Assemble a Puzzle

During the hours leading up to the Thanksgiving feast, or the many hours to come on Friday and Saturday, set up a virtual puzzle app with your favorite family puzzle partners.

My favorite is jigsawpuzzle.io but there are several to choose from. This website reviews four. Schedule several times to work on it together during the weekend.

Serve Food to Others

If your health allows, contact the Salvation Army, food bank, food pantry, or other program in your community and offer to help prepare or serve meals.

Inquire about social distancing protocols and anything else you need to do to keep yourself safe. When you see the gratitude others feel for your small effort, you will gain a whole new perspective on this holiday.

Create a Buzz

During the days leading up to Thanksgiving, exchange telephone calls and video chats with members of your family to discuss individual plans, shopping expeditions (or deliveries), recipes, expectations for the holiday.

When you are all together, these conversations happen naturally. Since this year you will be in different places, it will take more effort. Include everyone, especially the children. They will enjoy showing you dioramas and craft activities they made with their online schoolmates or parents pressed into service as teachers.

Make a Gratitude Tree

We did this in person last year, and it was a great hit. It’s a great activity for children – or childlike adults. With a little effort on your part, you can make it happen virtually.

Download and print coloring pages of maple leaves. (Google “maple tree coloring pages” and choose a page with three or more leaves.) Make enough copies so each person in your family, including you and each child, can have a page.

Now Google “blank gratitude trees” and you’ll get a plethora of trees to choose from. Download and print the one you like best. Copy one for each household. Send off the packets in plenty of time for them to arrive by Thanksgiving.

Include a note explaining the activity, which includes cutting out the leaves, writing things they are grateful for, and sticking them to the tree, which can be fastened to a nearby wall with mounting putty or tape. At some time during the weekend, arrange video calls so everyone can share.

Remember This Year

If you keep a journal, record all the events, emotions, and positive moments you experience in the coming days and weeks. This will be the year to remember and to share with family members at future Thanksgivings.

Remember that year that Grandma conned us into cutting out little paper leaves at Thanksgiving Dinner? Remember how Uncle Saul teared up, reading his gratitude note from little Lindsay? Remember how relieved we all were that no one became ill after our socially distanced celebrations?

Remember, and be grateful.

What are you planning for Thanksgiving this year? Are you getting together with someone or doing something on Zoom? What activities can you do together – but virtually? Can you find something to be grateful for in 2020? Please share your celebration tips with our community!

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