Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

Thanksgiving and Its Pandemic Reckoning

In a few short weeks, Boston College students will fly home to spend the holiday season with their families. Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the holiday season—however, with a pandemic breathing down everyone's necks, it’s hard to imagine what such an occasion might look like. Rules and regulations put in place during the pandemic have left many with limited options for any type of social interaction. With Thanksgiving looming on the horizon, now’s the time to reflect on the holiday and what it might mean for Americans moving forward.

BC recently ramped up its guest policies and COVID-19 restrictions, limiting the number of people in dorms to 10 people. Massachusetts made the cut off of 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors at gatherings. COVID-19 limitations also recommended that those over the age of 65 stay home altogether, regardless of mask-wearing and social distancing. At the time of writing this article, MA has put in place a non-mandatory curfew for businesses, alongside other limitations. With a grim trajectory of the disease in the winter months ahead, those policies are set to become more strict and possibly transform into another quarantine. The restrictions and policy changes form the background that Americans are slated to deal with going into some of the busiest months of the year. Thanks to COVID-19, the stage is set for Thanksgiving 2020—which is sure to be like no other. 

Thanksgiving’s culture in America can be generally defined as politically contentious, stressful, and overbearing. While some people get along swimmingly with their families, the harsh reality is that many in America do not. What is ordinarily a polarizing holiday looks to become worse given the state of the nation this year. COVID-19 and the Trump Administration have undoubtedly made the country more polarized than ever. If families do meet this Thanksgiving, conversations are bound to deteriorate faster than in years past. 

Petty fighting is not all that comes into play—mental health problems worsened when the country shut down due to isolation, stress, and lack of resources. For those dealing with drug abuse, mental trauma, and economic stress, family hostility will only make their situations worse. It may sound ironic, but the holiday centered on giving thanks has done quite the opposite, and will continue to reinforce a sense of hostility that emerged during COVID.

Mental health issues may also worsen due to the added stress of the holidays. Planning and cooking for the extended family may add an untenable amount of strain to a person’s mental health, pushing them further toward a mental crisis. Families will also have to balance health and connection this year. Elderly people are at the forefront of this problem, and will likely be forced to stay home. However, their absence is not likely to ease worries over their health and well-being. Instead, the prospect of having a family member (especially those 65+ years old) contract COVID-19 will induce further stress and worry—causing families to rethink celebrating entirely. 

While all of the above-mentioned points regarding Thanksgiving in a pandemic generally pertain to BC students, college students have unique concerns that further complicate turkey day. For example, college students may return home with the fear that they may be bringing COVID-19 back with them. Extended flights across the country leave many wondering if it is safe or worth it to return home given the circumstances. 

For some students, going home for the holidays means taking a break and relaxing, but for others, home life is much more hostile. Family situations vary across the student body. Many students are unwelcome at home because of their sexuality or gender identity. Going home to a hostile environment may strain students mentally and bring added stress to an already tense year. 

Quarantine revealed an overlooked necessity in students’ lives: social connection. With Thanksgiving inching closer and closer to cancellation, students will be sent to isolate themselves in their homes away from their connections, friends, and lifelines at BC. With BC’s new decision surrounding the spring semester, students are looking at a nearly two-month hiatus from seeing their friends face to face (this coming after last spring’s semester was cut in half for the same reason).

Thanksgiving this year will be an amalgamation and compounding of everything that is wrong with the holiday. “The most wonderful time of the year” brings with it the theme of stress and anxiety that has plagued 2020. If Thanksgiving always stresses people out, and this year even more so, why exactly do Americans celebrate it? Many Americans learned in elementary school about the “Indians” and their Thanksgiving dinner with the Pilgrims to signify their friendship. However, this popular history of Thanksgiving does not justly describe the reality of that time period. As a result of these racist undertones, Thanksgiving is increasingly contested each year. This year in particular should give Americans pause and make them question what the future of the holiday looks like.

Thanksgiving will scale down this year and start off the holiday season unlike ever before. Smaller family dinners will likely replace large extended family gatherings. The typical turkey may be dropped for a smaller home-cooked meal. The extravagance and absurd amount of food probably won’t make an appearance with fewer people to feed and more stress surrounding finances and food availability. Could this be the future of Thanksgiving? COVID-19 may be giving people yet another opportunity to improve. This time, Thanksgiving could have its reckoning. The focus could turn away from gluttonous overeating and toward a careful appreciation of the food that is available. The pandemic’s ravaging of Americans’ way of life could allow families to turn inward and to forgo political fights for matters like mental health. Instead of addressing national problems, families can instead focus on what’s right in front of them. 

COVID-19 puts Thanksgiving and the upcoming holiday season in turmoil with questions of how to celebrate these long-held traditions. While the pandemic continues, and Thanksgiving looks to become another casualty of 2020, the positive opportunity given to families this year is real. With such a massive breakdown of American traditions, people can step back, look at what they’re celebrating, and ask why. Why is Thanksgiving at the heart of American holiday life? Such retrospection may cause folks to rethink Thanksgiving and, in the process, address the unspoken problems that have affected everyone with its celebration.

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