How to Have a Virtual Thanksgiving

As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, people long to get together with extended family, and surveys indicate that more than half of all Americans plan to travel for this Thanksgiving. However, we are also seeing record numbers of COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Given this uncontrolled disease transmission throughout most of the United States, the beginning of influenza season, and the fact that extended family get togethers are one of the most common transmission events for COVID, the CDC and many public health experts have strongly advised people against travel and spending Thanksgiving with those with whom you do not live. Canada had their Thanksgiving in October and experienced significant transmission of COVID within extended families. I have no reason to believe we will not have the same experience in the United States.

So, if you want to protect yourself and your family, let me suggest a virtual Thanksgiving. Given that gatherings are one of the riskiest settings for disease transmission, I reached out to an event planner to find out how they were helping clients do virtual events. I didn’t have to look far. My daughter, Lindsey Pate is a professional event planner with Bliss Events here in Boise. She has helped clients create virtual birthday parties and other events, so I asked her for her advice as to how people who want to spend time with family for Thanksgiving could do so safely and virtually. Lindsey is also a certified nursing assistant, who has participated in the care of COVID patients at a medical center here in Boise, so she is acutely aware of how severe this disease can be. Here was her advice:

Celebrating Thanksgiving From a Distance

By Lindsey Pate

Since you are following my father’s blog, I’ll wager we’re cohorts in understanding this virus is real and our behaviors are a contributing factor in the control of its spread. With the holidays approaching, those of us with a similar mindset may be considering how we can honor the season through responsible, festive celebration. As a professional event planner and a healthcare worker, I have been pivoting since March to work with clients and my own family on how to celebrate while avoiding unnecessary exposure.

By now, we know the short list of guiding principles until a vaccine is readily available– distance socially, wash our hands, avoid touching our faces, and if gathering, do so outside, in well-ventilated areas– but what does this mean for holidays centered around gathering and togetherness? Here’s a short list of ideas to acknowledge the holiday and inspire feelings of closeness, while adhering to the distancing recommendations of medical experts.

Together at a distance:

Most families I know will choose to join as a household to celebrate the Thanksgiving meal tradition. To keep the sense of celebration intact, consider plans to meet with extended family afterward, in a socially distanced setting. Just as Covid birthdays saw the rise of drive by parades, the same idea can be applied for the holidays: decorate your vehicles and plan a caravan for immuno-compromised or elderly relatives. If you’re ready to usher in the Santa season, pre-purchase tickets for an event such as Idaho Botanical Garden’s Winter Garden aGlow; the venue will be implementing social distancing and safety protocols to alleviate precaution pressure.

Going virtual doesn’t have to be awkward:

The year has taught us the ins and outs of the proverbial Zoom meeting and it’s likely some of us are planning an online dinner session. Avoid the silent pauses and over-talking with some pre-planned activities. Activities like a costume contest (can ugly Thanksgiving sweaters please be a thing?), turkey themed “Minute to Win It” contests, even a household scavenger hunt can be fun to break up the lulls. Gift bags can be porch-delivered ahead of time and include conversation starters (pieces of paper with topics to encourage discussion), game activities, and even slices of Mom’s pumpkin pie to enjoy simultaneously. Appoint a moderator (kids love this role!) to facilitate a talking order and award speaking privileges when multiple relatives pipe in at once.

Remember, it’s about reflection and gratitude:

So, gratitude pumpkins are a thing and they’re pretty great. Buy pumpkins for every person within a family unit and write a name on each gourd (or squash… fruit?). This can be a real pumpkin, but I also love the foam pumpkins that can be kept forever. If you’re a large family, consider a Secret Turkey and draw names ahead of time for the family with which you will share your admiration. Use an indelible pen to write directly onto the pumpkin the things you love and are thankful for about this individual, then deliver to their respective doorsteps. Let the comments be positive and anonymous – you may be wonderfully surprised by what others appreciate about you! If not everyone is interested in a little leg-work, have someone create a slide show of family photos to be shared digitally or virtually.

Ditch the cooking:

There’s nothing typical about 2020, so why not turn the whole thing on its head? Skip the cooking this year and dine at home with food created by a talented, local chef whose business could use your support. For more traditional continuity, have every household in your family place an order and eat together virtually, while sharing the same meal.

Go for it:

As gatherings dwindle to ten or fewer, the opportunity arises to create that spectacular, Pinterest-worthy event you’ve always wanted to host! Throughout the pandemic, we event planners have seen attention paid to the smallest of details, since the guest counts are manageable and budget friendly. For your family, maybe this means breaking out Grandma’s special dishware and linen napkins, or creating place cards and a beautiful centerpiece, or cooking your green bean casserole because it’s delicious and Aunt Sally always volunteers to bring hers first! Whatever this looks like for you and yours, 2020 is the year to simply go for it.

However you choose to celebrate next week, Thanksgiving still remains a day worth dedicating to gratitude and reflecting on the year’s blessings. Beyond the fact we are all grateful this year is approaching its conclusion, enjoy the special time with your loved ones and make the most of the lemons we’ve been stockpiling since Spring.

From our family to yours, we wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving and a beautiful holiday season.

5 thoughts on “How to Have a Virtual Thanksgiving

  1. Thank you both for this most helpful suggestion. Lindsey, your ideas will hopefully encourage many to become creative and celebrate this holiday season safely while avoiding the likely consequences that come in large gatherings. I will be sharing this with friends here in Texas.


  2. In a word- “no”. I understand the logical reasoning behind virtual thanksgiving but no.  If  we were locked down tight, if we never went out, found ourselves in crowded situations, I might be more in favor. But no.  I have become ill, more than once, after my grandchildren from out of state have visited.  I suspect they brought something from their school my body’s defenses folded when faced with that attack.    Still…… no.  I’ll take that chance with extra precautions if the parents of the grandchildren are willing.  Naturally, we will take extra precautions.  Let’s not crowd into a small room, maybe not cram into the VW, maybe do something different with the food on the table.  But virtual?  No. I have enough Zoom, Teams, and Facetime experience to know it’s a good way to have an information sharing session without travel, but it sucks as a relationship sharing session.  There is nothing like being in the same room with someone.    Thanksgiving, with precautions, is not the place I let the virus dictate to me.  This isn’t about personal rights.  It’s about being a human being where nothing is 100%, you still have to live a life.

    Respectfully, John W. Wright Twin Falls, Idaho


    1. Hi John,

      I totally understand your sentiment and I know it is shared by many. Just two things in rebuttal. First, we are months away from a safe, effective vaccine for the general public (sooner for high risk groups). It would be one thing if the vaccine were a decade away, but it seems like under these circumstances, caution may be in order since the sacrifices will not be for long. Secondly, if this virus could talk, I would imagine it saying the very same thing that you did – “There is nothing like being in the same room with someone.” Be safe. I hope all went well for your Thanksgiving. Please reconsider for the upcoming holidays.


  3. Thank you Dr. Pate and Lindsey Pate. This helpful information and recommendation will save lives, I have no doubt. Best to you for the holidays.


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