It’s Thanksgiving next week.
But, I am not exactly feeling the holiday spirit.
I come from a large family, and, normally, we have a huge get-together on Thanksgiving Day. Everyone brings a dish or two, my mother makes her famous apple and pumpkin pies, and we gather around 4 p.m. for an hours-long feast extraordinaire.
This year, thanks to the pandemic, there will be no big family event. Each household will be dining by itself. Like other families around America, we will be celebrating Thanksgiving this year on a small scale, under glass, with fewer place settings—maybe a turkey breast instead of a full turkey.
Call it Thanksgiving de minimis.
Heck, I’m even hearing that some in my family will be doing steak on the grill instead of turkey. What? No turkey on Thanksgiving? It’s heresy!
No, it’s just life in this strange and messy year of the pandemic. A year that no one expected. A year of devastated routines and traditions. A year most of us can’t wait to be over.
Celebrating this year’s holiday on a small scale is the responsible thing to do, of course. The virus is spreading like wildfire right now, and none of us wants to get it (or spread it to others, like our 87-year-old mother).
Still, Thanksgiving COVID-style just doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving, at least not to me. For me, Thanksgiving is something big and sprawling—something chaotic.
There’s never enough space at the dining room table for everyone, so you set up extra tables that extend out into the living room. The adults sit at one table, the younger kids at another, and after everyone is settled and grace has been said, there’s a mad rush to get in line for the vittles that are set out buffet-style on the side.
By the time the last person in line is sitting down to eat, those who were first in line have already cleared their plates and are thinking about seconds. And so it goes until everyone around the table is stuffed and moaning about how they can’t eat another bite—until it’s time for dessert.
That—along with the Thanksgiving Day parade, football games, and Santa making an appearance on the fire truck as he tours the neighborhood—is what the Thanksgiving holiday is to me. It’s a delectable mash of food, family, and football that satisfies the belly as well as the soul.
But just as Mr. Pandemic has disrupted every other aspect of life in this all-too-forgettable year of 2020—our work, our socializing, our travel plans, our ability to sit at a bar, go to the gym, or a range of other simple pleasures—he has also swung his wrecking ball into our precious holidays. He has forced us to reset our expectations for this Thanksgiving Like No Other.
For me, this means:
Not seeing that gorgeous 20-pound turkey pulled out of the oven and set out on the table, golden brown and dripping with juice.
Not having to choose between my Mom’s mashed potatoes and my sister’s candied sweet potatoes, and so taking a big scoop of both.
No crowding around the television in the living room after dinner, rooting on whatever team is playing the Dallas Cowboys.
No chatting with once-little nephews and nieces who have sprouted before your eyes into young men and women with lives and careers of their own.
All of which makes me feel a bit like Charlie Brown when the pathetic tree he’s brought back from the lot collapses under the weight of the decorations—and everyone including his faithful dog Snoopy laughs at him—and he turns to Linus and shouts out in a dejected voice:
“What is Christmas all about?”
What is Thanksgiving all about? If it’s not about having parties and going to parades and wrapping your arms around loved ones you haven’t seen in months or even years, why bother? Isn’t it just another dinner except with turkey and cranberry sauce?
All of this has been on my mind a lot this week as I hear about Mr. Pandemic rearing his ugly head again, taking away more of the freedoms and pleasures that we have always taken for granted.
But then I started thinking about the Plymouth colonists 400 years ago and what their Thanksgivings must have been like. I think of the challenges those pilgrims were facing back then, being in a foreign and unfamiliar land, at the mercy of the weather and often hostile tribes. How homesick they must have been. How frightened and exposed they must have felt.
Still, they found a way to celebrate the harvest and invite the local friendly Indians who had helped them. Isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about—being grateful for what we have and the people who helped us get there?
It seems to me that, along with gratitude, the pilgrims must have mixed in large doses of hope into their Thanksgiving celebrations. The hope of better things to come, of a good year ahead, of their plans coming to fruition.
Wasn’t it hope that led them to the New World in the first place? Faith and hope for a better life, despite all of the privations they had faced in their homeland?
There’s great power in gratitude. I know that for a fact, based on the things that I’ve been through.
As I tell in my forthcoming book, The Long Walk Home, it was gratitude that led me out of the pit—the darkest point of my life—and going through my divorce about 15 years ago. I began consciously focusing on the smallest things that I could be grateful for. The sunshine. A roof over my head. The taste of oatmeal in the morning mixed with brown sugar and raisins.
It was an experiment back then. I didn’t know if it would work, but nothing else was working, so I figured why not?
And it worked. Gratitude led me out of the pit to the sunshine, and it has kept me there ever since. A daily focus on being grateful for the little things, wherever I can find them. They are everywhere if only we look for them.
So here’s what I’m going to do this Thanksgiving:
>> I’m going to focus not on what I don’t have—all the things that Mr. Pandemic has taken from me—but on all the blessings I do have.
>> And I’m going to have hope and faith that a year from now, we—me, my family, the entire country—will be in a different place. There’s a good reason for that hope, with the incredible progress being made on a vaccine.
So there’s something else to be thankful for: the amazing, awesome, super-smart scientists and researchers who have been working at breakthrough speed this year on finding medical solutions to lead us out of the pandemic.
Thank you, all! And thank you to all of the front-line workers in hospitals and emergency rooms for everything you’ve done for us this year. We are deeply grateful for all the sacrifices you’ve made.
See? I’m feeling better already.