The New Rules of Holiday Gathering: Thanksgiving Dinner in a Garage, Leaving Cookies on Doorsteps, and More

updated Nov 16, 2020
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“I’m really angry about this Thanksgiving and I don’t think I’m handling it the best way,” confesses Rachel Martin, who plans to travel with her two kids from New York City to her brother’s home in Baltimore. As will be the case for many this year, Martin’s holiday is shaping up to look strikingly different than those past. For one, her family’s usual 20-something guest list will be trimmed down to a fraction of the size. Instead of one cook preparing a sumptuous feast for all, each attending family will bring their own food. Everyone is expected to disperse after the meal; no one will hunker down in the guest room for the night. And rather than cramming around a long dining table, the room comfortably heated by the warmth of many bodies, the Thanksgiving meal will unfold in a drafty garage with the door propped open. The meal will have a “tailgating theme.”

The CDC continues to class “attending large indoor gatherings with people from outside of your household” as a higher-risk activity, which for many Covid-conscious families, will necessitate a radical reimagining of this year’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and other winter holidays. Switching things up is easier said than done, of course. Unlike summertime festivities, which could often easily move outdoors, events timed to late fall and winter must contend with the possibility of plunging temperatures and inclement weather. And the emotional lift might be even more taxing: For millions of Americans fatigued from months of social distancing, the prospect of a muted holiday season is particularly painful. After spending more than half of the year at home, many of us find ourselves needing a bigger dose of holiday cheer than usual. How can we (safely) get that? How can we make informed decisions as to what’s best? Is there anything we can do to make this “new normal” feel like regular normal? Let’s take a look.

How to Decide Whether or Not It’s Safe to Get Together for the Holidays

Smaller gatherings are critical,” says Lauren Sauer, director of operations for Johns Hopkins Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response and assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at the university’s medical school. Her office is worried about what Thanksgiving and the winter holidays will mean for COVID-19 transmission, given that these events traditionally involve large indoor gatherings, often require out-of-state travel, and may mean visiting with at-risk elderly relatives. “More than anything I want to have a massive Christmas or Thanksgiving with my family,” Sauer divulges. “I also recognize that putting them at risk might impact any potential future holiday I have with them, and so it is worth being smart about things.”

Experts agree: The safest way to celebrate the holidays this year is just with the people who have been in your household this whole time. (Or virtually, but more on that later.) If you must attend gatherings with people outside of your household, there are ways to mitigate risk of COVID transmission — although Sauer stresses that there’s no way to eliminate it entirely. Still, even minute safety-forward decisions can add up to something greater. “It may feel like a small choice, but maybe that small choice — coupled with another small choice, coupled with another small choice — gets you to a much safer place.”

Before you make any decisions about potential gatherings, check the rates of COVID-19 transmission in your community and the communities of your guests. It’s not always the easiest information to suss out, but The Atlantic has a lot of great suggestions for finding it, from checking the local public health department website to visiting sites like The same story in The Atlantic has various expert recommendations in terms of what to look for, numbers-wise. One expert says it’s safer to gather in areas that are only seeing 25 new cases a day per 100,000 people. Another expert puts that number lower at five to 10 new cases. But the idea is to let those rates inform the level of risk you’re willing to take.

As for the actual gathering, Sauer stresses that outdoor activities are always safer than indoor ones. (One study found that the odds of catching the virus are 20 percent higher when inside.) Maybe that means grilling your Thanksgiving turkey outside instead of gathering around in a tight kitchen. Or creating an outdoor hangout zone in your backyard, complete with cozy blankets and a fire pit. Perhaps lean into the cold-weather vibe and serve up mugs of a warm, holiday-themed cocktail, like buttered rum or hot toddies. And of course, encourage everyone to mask up when they’re not eating.

Everything You Need for a Small Thanksgiving

Safe and Creative Ways to Celebrate the Holidays Virtually

Although Sauer wishes we could all be together in IRL this year, she’s a big fan of using technology to connect with loved ones. Examples include arranging a Zoom session at the end of a holiday dinner or FaceTiming with friends while cooking to replicate the pre-meal ritual of hanging out in the kitchen.

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Shopping for Holiday Groceries Safely This Year

In Overland Park, Kansas, Jenna Peterson Riley is intent on sharing a Thanksgiving dinner with family members no matter the distance between them. “We’re planning to make a shared menu, with each person picking something different, then eating together via FaceTime,” she says. “My guess is we will go with Cornish hens versus an actual turkey … [it] makes more sense for only a couple of people eating.”

Jessie Goldsmith of Washington, D.C., also plans to enjoy Thanksgiving with local family, but with a twist. “We were talking about having a sort of virtual potluck where we would each cook/bake certain items for Thanksgiving and then go around to each other’s homes, dropping off the food we made,” she explains. “Then we would all eat together over video chat.”

Come Christmas, in-person cookie swaps are probably out. But bakers can arrange cookie exchanges by leaving packages on friends’ and families’ doorsteps, making sure there’s no face-to-face contact (and that the giftees are down to receive care packages). Instead of in-person Christmas caroling, Sauer recommends going virtual. “I love the idea of recording kids caroling and then sending them out, or doing caroling on Zoom,” Sauer says. “Who doesn’t want to see a bunch of kids singing holiday songs? It would warm anyone’s spirits.”

Tips for Forming a Holiday Pod

For those who aren’t willing to settle for seeing loved ones’ faces on a screen, there is one more idea worth mentioning: the holiday pod. What’s a holiday pod? It’s when separate households take the necessary precautions in order to get together under one roof for an extended period of time, say, a few weeks or from now until the new year.

The first step is to sort out your group’s rules and communicate them effectively. “Is everybody going to quarantine for two weeks [beforehand]? How do you change your behavior when you return home to make sure that you keep yourself and your family and your community safe?” Sauer asks. Other potential questions to ask: Will the pod require members to produce a negative COVID test result before joining? (Testing can help suss out infections, although it’s worth noting that testing alone is not always a guarantee that it’s safe to gather.) Is there a hard no-unexpected-guests policy? (Keeping your pod closed will help infection-free zones stay that way.) Will the pod encourage mask-wearing, and keep windows open when possible? (Both help reduce rates of transmission.) Again, if a member of the pod is infected, no single measure will definitively halt the spread of COVID-19. But each safety measure serves to tick overall risk slightly downward.

Sauer recommends establishing ground rules at least two weeks in advance, so no one is caught off-guard by them. “It can be a hard conversation and you certainly don’t want to start your holidays off by setting a bunch of rules and drawing hard lines,” she said. “But those boundaries protect you. They protect your family.”

In Burlington, Vermont, Carolyn Orgain plans to pod with her large family this Christmas. Nine family members in total will fly in from around the country and overseas, and Orgain is designing a complex quarantine setup inside her home. “I have zones of quarantine,” she explains. “There’s a basement area that people will be in and then there’s also like an upstairs area,” she says, adding that each zone has a separate bathroom. The basement has a kitchenette, but she’ll have to deliver meals to the upstairs zone. “My plan is a week of quarantine and then they’ll all get a COVID test,” she says. It’s a lot, Orgain admits, but these are strange times. Keeping her family and community safe remains the number-one goal. 

“Christmas is my favorite holiday, but coming from such a big family, it’s something that we all make a big effort for,” Orgain said. “This year, we’re just going to make a little bit bigger of an effort.”

The Home for the Holidays vertical was written and edited independently by the Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn editorial teams and generously underwritten by Cointreau.

Do you have plans for the holidays yet? Tell us what you’re doing in the comments below.