Dear Miriam | How Can We Celebrate Thanksgiving Now?

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Dear Miriam,

Since you’ve already gone through many Jewish holidays during the pandemic, what advice do you have for people who are preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving and Chanukah but who haven’t been through a holiday under these circumstances yet?

Signed,
Unhappy holidays


Dear Unhappy,

Another Monday, another question about trying to find happiness, comfort or even just a sense of functioning in the middle of terrible circumstances. I just looked back at my recent list of columns, and it looks like about half of them since March have been some version of “How can I make regular seasonal experiences as normal as possible, even when everything is turned upside down?”

When we first went into lockdown, Passover was fast approaching, and Jewish leaders – whether of synagogues, communal institutions, or of households – sprang into action coming up with creative ideas for seders. There were Zoom seders, solo seders, socially distanced seders and lonely seders. And there were people who opted out altogether rather than do something that felt like a poor substitute for the togetherness and ritual they craved.

Between Passover and Shavuot in the spring, and then the fall High Holidays, it’s true that those of us in the Jewish community have done a lot of figuring out how to observe pandemic holidays. But even if you feel like Thanksgiving is your first holiday during this time, surely you’ve celebrated birthdays, maybe an anniversary, Mother’s Day, July 4, etc. March, after all, was a long time ago. And even if you feel totally unmoored by the idea of breaking Thanksgiving and Chanukah traditions, on some level, you knew this was coming. On another level, your body and soul have already acclimated to everything being different. It’s only the particulars to figure out from here.

First, let yourself mourn. It’s both natural and reasonable to be sad about missing out on Grandma’s cranberry sauce, board games with your siblings, or even just the predictability of things being the way they are every year. Make a list of the things you’ll miss the most and then share the list with someone who cares about you. Maybe consider making a list of the things you won’t miss, too, just to remind yourself that even under the best of circumstances, the holidays aren’t perfect. (No need to share this second list with your family!)

Then, figure out what you’re going to do instead. You don’t need to decide how you’re going to manage your emotions right now, just what’s actually going to happen. Are you going to be alone on Thanksgiving? OK, what do you want to eat, and what movie do you want to watch? What items do you need to buy or borrow to decorate your home, or to make your favorite foods? Alone on Chanukah or Christmas? Who are the people in your family you want to talk to on that day? How far in advance do you need to order presents to arrive on time? Is there a church service you want to watch on zoom, and if so, what do you need to do to set that up?

Every day since March 13 has had unprecedented challenges, and you’ve managed each of them up until now. Certainly, you’ve probably handled some better than others, but you’ve gotten through the past 8 months. Holidays and other special occasions are new and particular challenges, but they’re all part of this year of adapting, and making do. This is sad, and these holidays may feel terrible (or unexpectedly all right), but you’ll get through it, whether you plan anything special or not.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t say outright that you’re doing the right thing by altering your holiday plans. The safest choice for everyone everywhere is to avoid indoor, unmasked gatherings with anyone outside your household. I know things feel awfully bleak right now, but getting together with extended groups for holiday celebrations is a risk right now that is just not worth it. As sad as you may feel, with great justification, I hope knowing that others are making similarly difficult choices will make you feel less alone.

Be well,
Miriam

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