Illustration for article titled Thanksgiving Can Still Be Special

Photo: Lew Robertson (Getty Images)

Thanksgiving is a bit of a weird holiday for me. When I was growing up, and all through college, it involved having the same meal every year at my grandparents’ house. But after college, when I moved across the country for a job at a newspaper, things got wonky. That first year, I worked on Thanksgiving—covering local meal deliveries to elderly residents—then hosted a potluck for some of the other newbie reporters. In the years that followed, my then-boyfriend (now-husband) and I enjoyed a few Thanksgivings with friends, and then his family started traveling to join us for the holiday. Several years ago, when we moved back to the East Coast, we began driving to Ohio to spend the holiday with my family. This year, for the first time, Turkey Day will be just the three of us—me, my husband, and our son.

I know people have struggled with (or may still be struggling with?) the decision whether or not to travel to see loved ones this Thanksgiving. It might feel like the choice is between a traditional, idyllic gathering of extended family, or the holiday being a total wash. But after so many years of changing faces around my own Thanksgiving table, I want to point out that however small your “gathering” is this year, it can still be special.

Bear with me, because I know this sucks. I very much want to make the trip to Ohio. During the entirety of this pandemic I have not seen my parents, nor my elderly grandfather, nor my brother, my sister-in-law, or my three nieces—except for one quick, as-socially-distanced-as-possible trip for my grandmother’s funeral in June. It’s terrible, but it’s also fine, because dammit, I can still make Thanksgiving special. And you can, too.

Get the kids extra involved

If ever there was a year to let the kids crash the kitchen during Thanksgiving dinner prep, it’s this one. Why? Because it doesn’t matter if the food is late getting on the table. It doesn’t matter if the mashed potatoes are a little too runny or you burn the stuffing. You have exactly zero people to impress, but you can give your kids the experience of helping to cook and “host” their first-ever Thanksgiving, which is a thing most of us don’t even attempt until we’re pretty solidly established into adulthood.

This year, for the first time, I’m enlisting my son to help make my grandmother’s applesauce. It will help him feel connected to our Ohio family, it will honor her (even if it can’t possibly be as good as hers always was), and it will help him feel like a part of the day’s efforts. Let your kids take turns basting the turkey—or hell, if you have a teenager, give them a crack at carving it for the first time, because why not. Let this meal be their meal; if it’s partly (or entirely) a disaster, it will make for an even better story in the years to come.

Use the “good stuff” anyway

Get out the sparkly placemats, the fanciest plates you own, the hand-painted glasses, and the cloth napkins. Sure, it’s just you, your partner, a three-year-old, and a six-year-old, but who cares? Go all out. Even if you’re not making the turkey and all the fixins—even if you’re just ordering a couple of pizzas or picking up some takeout—the food and drinks will taste better when the place settings look as fancy as possible.

It’s a signal to your brain, and your kids’ brains, that this meal is special. It may be the 47th time they’ve eaten a slice of pepperoni from Bruno’s Pizzeria this pandemic, but this slice is a special Thanksgiving slice.

Set the mood

Maybe your family is the type to light a bunch of candles, dim the lights, and play some relaxing music in the background. Or maybe it’s more your speed to blast music and have a celebratory pre-dinner dance party. Whatever mood you’re trying to set, whether it’s thankful and reflective or all-out party mode, go all in. Eat dinner with everyone wearing those matching holiday pajamas you splurged on this year while National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation plays on a loop in the background.

This is a year like no other. Throw tradition to the wind and do basically whatever you want to make it more special than any other random Thursday.