How to host Thanksgiving safely during COVID

Illustration: Family walking in Fall

As this momentous and terrible year of 2020 draws to a close, there’s a natural longing for the comfort of holiday traditions. 

This year more than ever, we want to gather with dear ones whom we haven’t seen in months or years. The thought of a house full of family and friends and warmth and good smells is so enticing right now. 

But with COVID spiking and states going back into lockdown from sea to shining sea, it’s time to face the sad truth: there is no safe and socially responsible way to gather with those outside of our pods right now. 

As tempting as it is to try and come up with some bargain that will make it OK—We’ll keep all the windows open! We’ll hold our breaths when we hug!—we need to be honest with ourselves about the likelihood of holding those boundaries once we’re all together celebrating. Add in kids, alcohol, and the jovial chaos of the holiday, and the chances of maintaining good COVID practices drop sharply, no matter how good our intentions may be.

In short: this whole situation sucks, in so very many ways, and it’s natural to feel sad about it. 

But as you move through the disappointment and begin to embrace the reality that Thanksgiving 2020 is not going to be like Thanksgivings of the past, you might begin to feel a hint of relief. A year off from all the labor and stress of the traditional meal is also a reprieve and a chance to reset. 

As you let go of the idea of the big dinner, curiosity stirs: what could it be like to celebrate this most traditional of holidays in a fresh way? 

Here are some ideas for making this Thanksgiving in a time of COVID as meaningful, enjoyable, and safe as possible for yourself and your family.

Remote Thanksgiving activities during the COVID-19 pandemic

There’s no denying that online is the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving. And despite the fact that so many of us are totally Zoomed out, there are still ways to make a virtual celebration an enjoyable one.

  • Cook together. A lot of Thanksgiving fun happens in the kitchen, with different generations preparing cherished family recipes. 

    During the days before the holiday or on the morning of the day itself, why not have a group Zoom where you make Mom’s oyster dressing together, or ask the family master baker to show everyone how to make a pumpkin pie. Be sure to send everyone the recipe ahead of time so they can gather the ingredients.
  • Eat and give thanks together. Preparing the same menu helps bring everyone together. So can making a place at the table for a laptop or tablet running Zoom for a virtual dinner. Take time at the start to focus on the reason for the season, which is gratitude for all the good things in life.

    Unstructured group video calls can be loud and overwhelming, so plan some light structure, like this:
  • A bell, a moment of silence, or three breaths
  • Welcoming remarks or an opening prayer
  • A go-round where everyone gets a chance to share something they’re grateful for. If that question gets eye-rolls, ask folks ahead of time to bring a passage from a favorite book, a poem, or a song that speaks to something they’re grateful for.
  • Play a game together. After dinner, you and the fam can hold a virtual scavenger hunt, where each team has to find objects from a list within the house. Or you can play classic games like Scattergories online, or play multi-player games using a platform like Jackbox.

    Here are a bunch of other games to play remotely. You may need help from a 14-year-old to pick one and get set up, but it’s totally worth it to introduce your Nana to Exploding Kittens
  • Watch a movie together. Teleparty is a Chrome extension that lets you watch movies together remotely via Netflix, Disney, Hulu, and HBO. It synchronizes everyone’s playback and adds a chat window, so you can throw shade with your cousins during one of the best movies to watch on Thanksgiving without getting shushed. 

    If you don’t use Chrome, here are some other ways to stream movies together remotely

Give others a reason to be grateful

If you’re having a tough time foregoing a traditional Thanksgiving, why not change up the script by giving others something to be grateful for? After all, Mom always said the best way to lift your spirits is to do something nice for someone else.

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash
  • Support a local restaurant. Okay, so ordering out isn’t entirely altruistic. But a lot of local restaurants (especially Black- and immigrant-owned ones) are struggling right now. One of them would probably be happy to receive a take-out order for your family’s Thanksgiving dinner. 
  • Reach out to friends. You probably know people who live alone and on a shoestring. Pack that turkey dinner into to-go boxes and deliver it to their doorsteps, or spend part of the day calling friends who are home alone.
  • Take it to the streets. If you have a lot of unhoused neighbors where you live, consider delivering (in a socially distanced way) a hot holiday meal to folks on the streets. Or if you’re more risk tolerant, mask up and help serve at a local shelter or free meal program to nourish bodies and soul at the same time.
  • Volunteer online. Even on Thanksgiving, there are a lot of ways to volunteer virtually. Check out this list of virtual volunteer opportunities focused on hunger. Here are a bunch of other ways to do something good for others on Thanksgiving.

Decolonize the holiday

In a year when so many have been galvanized by the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of people are taking a critical look at the racist roots of our Thanksgiving mythos. If this resonates for you and your family, take actions like these: 

  • Learn the real history. Start out by finding out about the original peoples of the place where you live. Remember that indigenous people are still here, and that violence against them is still happening. 
  • Include a land acknowledgement. A land acknowledgment is a brief statement acknowledging that an event is taking place on lands traditionally stewarded by indigenous peoples (name the tribes), and expressing respect to those peoples and their elders, past, present, and future.
  • Focus on traditional foods. Find ways to feature traditional local foods in your Thanksgiving meal—for example, a side dish with corn, beans, and squash. This sacred trio, called the Three Sisters, is traditional across much of what is now called the southern United States. 
  • Give thanks with an Iroquois prayer. The Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address is a great prayer of thanks to all parts of the living world. It has been generously shared and is accessible for people of various ages and spiritual persuasions. Invite folks to read it aloud at dinner in a call-and-response way, repeating “Now our minds are one” at the end of each section.   
  • Make reparations. This is an extremely appropriate time of year for donations to local indigenous organizations. You can pass the hat or hold a raffle, auction, or other fundraiser to give back to the original residents of the place you call home. Here are more ways to celebrate Thanksgiving on stolen land.

If you do host Thanksgiving in person despite COVID

Despite public health warnings and common sense, we know that some will still decide to host an in-person Thanksgiving dinner party during the worst COVID outbreak to date. If this is you, bless your heart, and may the odds be ever in your favor. Take these steps to protect everyone you and your family may come in contact with:

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
  • Avoid travel. Stay home or as close to home as possible. Obey local restrictions on travel and gatherings.
  • Gather outdoors. Meet in the open air, or in a large, well-ventilated space.
  • Gather in small groups. Limit the number of people at the party, and avoid gathering with people from multiple other households.
  • Wear a mask, wash your hands, maintain social distance. There’s a dangerous human tendency to slack on COVID precautions around those we know and trust. Don’t drop these practices just because you’re with the fam. 

    Ask everyone to distance and stay masked unless they’re eating or drinking, and to wash hands or sanitize frequently.
  • Isolate and get tested. Unfortunately, it’s already too late to minimize risk of exposure by isolating for 14 days prior to the holiday. But you can still isolate for five to seven days, then get a highly accurate PCR test to confirm you’re not carrying the virus before gathering with your relatives. Be sure to continue isolating from the time you take the test until the gathering.


Despite the tough choices we are all having to make right now, there’s still a lot to be grateful for. Recent good news about vaccines gives reason for hope that next year will be better. Remember that by choosing to forgo gathering in person, we’re helping make sure that everyone will still be around for Thanksgiving next year.

Carol Carmick

Carol Carmick (aka Stella Maris) is a strategic copywriter, cauldron technician, and community instigator in Portland, Oregon.

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