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We Gather October?

How Thanksgiving was different for our family this year thanks to COVID-19

By Richard Eisenberg

Friday, Oct. 9, 2020 may have been a fairly typical pandemic day for you. But for my family and me, it was Thanksgiving, COVID-style.

Eisenberg family at their Oct. 9 Thanksgiving table
Eisenberg family at their Oct. 9 Thanksgiving table  |  Credit: Courtesy of Richard Eisenberg

For the last 10 months, my wife, Liz, and I have been heartbroken, unable to see our sons Aaron, 31, and Will, 30, in person. They live in Los Angeles, where they’re screenwriting partners; we live in the suburban New Jersey home where we raised them. Liz and I last saw them while on the set of the Hulu horror-comedy movie they wrote, “Good Boy.”

We all agreed that Aaron and Will shouldn’t fly here around Thanksgiving, nor should we travel to see them then, because the airports and planes would be too crowded and potential COVID-19 superspreaders in what might be The Second Wave of the pandemic. But our sons felt that flying home in early October, wearing masks and shields and ensuring an open middle JetBlue seat between them, would be a calculated risk.

“We’ll miss the big family gatherings at Thanksgiving but it’s more important to stay safe."

So, they got COVID-19 tests (negative, thankfully), kissed their wives Leigh Anne and Jen and their dogs Francine and Arlo goodbye, and hopped on their plane for “Thanksgiving.” I met them, masked, outside the Newark airport doors. We did not hug.

instagram post
Aaron documents the flight on his Instagram

How Americans Are Celebrating Thanksgiving Differently in 2020

Before I tell you how it went on October 9 (actual holiday: Leif Erikson Day), I want to say that we are hardly alone in celebrating Thanksgiving much differently than usual in 2020.

Some 68% of Americans surveyed by the consumer research firm Numerator said that’ll be the case for them —  either gathering only with immediate family or members of their household or with smaller groups; not traveling; not gathering with ”elderly friends or relatives” or celebrating virtually instead of in person. A Hopper travel site survey found that 21% of people said they don’t plan to travel this holiday season, although they would in a typical year.

And check out these poignant posts on Next Avenue’s Facebook page:

Jean Leo Moore of Erie, Pa.: “We, my children and their families will probably not get together at Thanksgiving or Christmas…It makes me sad, but it’s not worth the risk. There is a teacher and three nurses in the family, so we’re well aware of what’s at stake. We’ll enjoy the holidays next year.”

Julie Pigott Robinson: “We’ll miss the big family gatherings at Thanksgiving but it’s more important to stay safe. I care for my 88-yo mom and am not taking chances. Not too many in the family are tech savvy, so phone calls will have to do.

Paulette Green: “normally I go to my daughter’s for both Thanksgiving and xmas but we had a falling out over COVID mask wearing & social distancing so I doubt I will even be invited.”

Margaret Reilly Mason: “We let our guard down and after an afternoon visiting some good friends, found out we had been exposed to Covid and had to get a test. We were negative, thank God. That was a wake up call. I think we’re going to have to reframe the holidays, which for us, include 20 or more family members and are always wonderful, but just not worth the risk this year.”

Suzanne Claffey: “Won’t be doing anything. My kids will have Thanksgiving without us and the situation has broken our heart.”

Nancy Vickers: “We’ll be here at home, thanks. No traveling, just Zoom, Skype or FaceTime. Doctor’s orders.”

Deb Tomsky: “ Will schedule holiday visits with zoom. ? Safety first!”

Susan Zent James: “Squashed.”

1 Week, 4 Holidays

Breanne Heldman, a New York City senior editor at People (and friend of my wife), told me that her family came up with a novel way to hold their holidays together this year. She and her husband and her brother in Denver flew to see Heldman’s seventysomething parents in Del Ray Beach, Fla., for five days in September and…

“My mom decided we would celebrate all the holidays through the year during that time, which was awesome!” Heldman said. As part of the surprise, her mother would do all the cooking.

Night one: Thanksgiving. “Her sweet potatoes were the most amazing thing I ever tasted in my life,” said Heldman. “That kicked it off.”

Nights two and three: Hanukah, celebrated for two nights because: leftovers. “Brisket and potato pancakes,” said Heldman.

Night four: New Year’s Eve. “She went all out, with steak and champagne,” Heldman said.

Night five: Passover. “We haven’t done Passover as a family in easily a decade.”

All in all, Heldman — who noted that she had her husband tested negative for COVID-19 before the trip and quarantined after returning home — said, “it was an epic way to spend that time together, to have memories and eat the foods that were such a part of our lives together as a family.”

Preparing for Our Family's 'Thanksgiving' in October

The Eisenberg family “Thanksgiving” wasn’t quite as epic. But it was just as memorable for us. A little sad, too, because we couldn’t share the meal with Liz’s mom, brothers, nephews and niece in Washington, D.C., and her dad had died in March.

Liz spent days cooking our time-honored Thanksgiving foods: pumpkin soup served in mini pumpkins; turkey and gravy; stuffing; my mother’s recipe for sweet potatoes with mini marshmallows and pumpkin pie for dessert.

No cranberries this year, though. The supermarket was out, because it hadn’t started stocking up. For some reason, the grocer believed the holiday was still seven weeks away.

Our rescue dog, Joey, at first barked furiously at intruders Aaron and Will, viewing them as the “Home Alone” burglars Marv and Harry. He ultimately calmed down.

“The first thing I’m thankful for is that none of us have contracted coronavirus and we’ve all managed to stay healthy,” my son, Aaron, said.


I took “Thanksgiving” off because, well, it was a holiday.

A brief scare: as mealtime approached, the oven stopped working. A panicky call to Jenn-Air led us to discover that somehow a circuit had been tripped. So, I reset the kitchen GFCI (ground fault circuit interruptor) and suddenly the oven was up and running again.

Liz told us she had so bought into the idea that Oct. 9 really was Thanksgiving, she was surprised that none of the neighbors were home cooking and hosting family members.

Turkey and Trimmings, But Some Empty Chairs

Before we sat down to eat, Will did the carving honors — filling the shoes of my late dad.

Will Eisenberg carves the turkey
Will does the carving honors

We sat, socially distanced, at our dining room table and were careful not to share any utensils or do anything else otherwise coronavirusy-untoward.

Then, as we began the feast, Aaron shared what he was thankful for:

“The first thing I’m thankful for is that none of us have contracted coronavirus and we’ve all managed to stay healthy,” he said. “I’m also thankful that you guys were able to see us in Los Angeles in January, not knowing what was to come later on in the year. Finally, I’m thankful for technology, which has enabled us to kind of put a Band-Aid over the open wound of not being able to see your family and which let you guys watch my wedding [he and Leigh Anne FaceTimed it with us] and see your faces numerous times a week [FaceTime, too]. That’s something that was really special to me.”

To me, too.

Other Next Avenue Facebook visitors told us they’re either unsure about their Thanksgiving plans or expect to celebrate as they always do.

“Cautiously planning to continue tradition for family Thanksgiving at the farm — will cancel if COVID19 rate increases in the coming weeks. It’s the one time each year we gather as a family so it’s a difficult decision since some of us are definitely in the high risk category,” said Sara Edwards Shain.

Vicki Cummins wrote: “We live in Texas, so we are planning for a (small group) socially distanced meal around the firepit on the patio.”

And Darah Simon Petersen of Oxford, Miss., said: “My son is coming to visit for Thanksgiving. I haven’t seen him in over a year and it’s a chance I am willing to take.”

Advice for Your Holidays

A few travel tips if you’ll be holding or attending a family Thanksgiving gathering —in October or November:

  • Some airports and airlines now offer COVID-19 tests
  • Airfares are as much as 40% off to lure travelers, since bookings are down roughly 30% compared to 2019
  • A few airlines have temporarily suspended their steep fees for changing flights throughout 2020 (typically about $200)
  • The number of scheduled November flights for United, Delta and American is down 33% to 50% from a year ago, according to Cirium, a travel data firm

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has some suggestions, too.

Its website says: “Travel increases the chance of getting and spreading the virus that causes COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others.”

But, the CDC says, if you’ll be with others for Thanksgiving, lower-risk activities include having a small dinner with only people who live in your household or a virtual dinner. A small outdoor dinner with family and friends who live in your community would be a “moderate-risk” activity and a “high-risk” activity is attending a large indoor gathering with people from outside of your household.

I asked Heldman, coming off her faux holidays, if she had any advice for others who’ll be doing Thanksgiving and perhaps December holidays in unusual ways this year. “My biggest advice is to lean in on it,” she said. “Feel grateful that you’re able to experience it, regardless of where it lands on the calendar and appreciate being able to get together at all.”

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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