Philadelphia, we have to cancel Thanksgiving.
For my household, that means there won’t be any raucous Bollywood dance parties at my in-laws’ home in New Jersey. My wife won’t be able to introduce her baby nephew to his first bite of pumpkin pie. My kids won’t be able to run rampant through the halls with their cool older cousins, imperiling the fine china and their parents’ collective patience.
I’m not going to spend time pretending this is OK. I won’t smile with dead eyes and say, “A Zoom Thanksgiving can be just as good as the real thing!” No, it can’t. This sucks.
But I am sure we have to do it. Why? Because we’re in a pandemic and the public health experts overwhelmingly say so.
Let’s say your house was flooded. The plumber comes over and says your pipes are leaking and the first thing you need to do is shut off the water at the source. How would you respond? Would you say: “No, sorry, I believe in the value of running water, so leave it on, the house be damned.” You wouldn’t — that’s insane.
Well, guys, our house is flooded. The numbers are terrifying. As of this writing, the United States was averaging 150,000 new cases every day. This past week, Philadelphia alone had an average of 978 new cases daily. And private, unregulated, indoor social gatherings are one big leaky pipe in the basement.
Our inability to keep the virus under control has left more than 250,000 Americans dead so far, more than were killed by the Vietnam and Korean Wars combined. Each one of those deaths is an empty seat around some family’s table, a hard kernel of sadness in dozens of people’s lives. When I try to comprehend the totality of loss being experienced, I wind up dizzily spiraling from grief to numbness to rage.
But I also know firsthand that the death count is not the full story of this virus’ destruction. Both my son and I are now in our eighth month as COVID long-haulers. We got sick in March and have never fully recovered. As I wrote for The Inquirer in September, neither of us is able to get through a normal day of work or school, and we’re dealing with near-constant fatigue and pain.
The latest estimates are that 10% of the people who catch COVID wind up dealing with similar long-term symptoms. That would mean more than a million people in this country already.
So my wife and I have pared down our Thanksgiving plans repeatedly, from large, to medium, to now very small. For the first time since my son could crawl, we’ll be spending the holiday with just our kids and nobody else.
This makes us very sad, and I understand why people are searching for any rationalization to avoid making this choice. But an isolated Thanksgiving is, this year, more true to the holiday’s real spirit than any other choice.
After all, Thanksgiving is not really about cramming the maximum number of people possible into your dining room, any more than it’s really about eating turkey.
At its core, Thanksgiving is meant to be a harvest festival. Like all such festivals, it is centered on a bountiful feast that recognizes the mind-boggling power of the natural world to feed and sustain us. Implicit is a not-so-veiled plea to the natural world to please not kill us during the winter.
In the modern era, when we can spend the coldest months in our heated homes snacking on strawberries flown in from Mexico, that plea hasn’t felt quite as necessary. This year is different.
The coronavirus pandemic makes winter a threat to our health and survival in a way it hasn’t been in living memory. COVID cases are spiking just as the flu season hits and our hospitals are on the brink. People will need to spend more time indoors, where the virus thrives. The cold will make outdoor dining and gym classes impossible, likely leading to more layoffs and more people in poverty. The vaccines will not get here in time to prevent any of this.
We need to approach winter the way the Pilgrims probably did. We’ll gather around the fire (the TV) and spend time darning our socks (Marie-Kondoing our closets) and telling each other long stories (bingeing The Crown) while we wait for spring. Winter this year isn’t something to be enjoyed. It is something to be endured.
And of course, Thanksgiving for most of us is about family. It’s when we go home. It’s when we see our people. When we list what we’re thankful for, we’re usually looking across the table at our parents, children, grandparents, grandkids, uncles, aunties, cousins, stepparents, half-brothers, “uncles” who aren’t really related, husbands, wives, or that new main squeeze we’re hoping becomes family in the near future.
Well, what could be a more deeply meaningful way to show your family you love them than sacrificing some joy to keep them safe?
I miss my family. But I know I’ll see them again. I want to be sure I’ll see them again. For their health — and the health of your family, and your neighbor’s family — I’ll spend this Thanksgiving glumly waving to them over a laptop screen, wishing they were here.
It sucks. But it’s what we all have to do.
Jonathan Lipman is a strategy and communications consultant for progressive organizations and nonprofits. He lives in South Philadelphia.