Though Thanksgiving 2020 isn’t canceled — like just about everything else this past year — it needs to be different. Because of this, it is currently not safe to travel or gather in the ways many of us typically do. This need to do differently has left many Christians split and pitted against one another.
Professionally, as disaster researchers and practitioners who have sought to help churches prepare and respond to COVID-19 before it was even declared a national emergency in the United States, we are with those calling for caution. Personally, as friends, family members, colleagues, and church members, we find ourselves also with those deeply wanting to celebrate with others in the same way we have in the past.
If we are to love our neighbor as Christ commanded, including to love them as we love ourselves (Mark 12:31), we must choose to celebrate Thanksgiving in new ways this year. The myths we have held onto for comfort are actually at the heart of our current struggles. We have to let go of them — here are some ways to do that.
1. Use technology to bridge pre-pandemic and post-pandemic traditions.
We get it, gathering together with loved ones this Thanksgiving around a screen won’t be the same as being together in person, but it is better than the alternative.
This might create additional tension, as ideas about what is and isn’t OK vary within families. It might mean setting an example for other family members, including older ones — maybe even the matriarchs and patriarchs. It might mean declining an invitation to be with other people you love, who will then be disappointed with you.
If ever there were a year to take advantage of modern advancements, this is it. As a society, we’ve never had so many ways to gather together while physically apart. There are apps that enable you to send someone a floral centerpiece or an entire Thanksgiving dinner. Family and friends can host watch parties on various streaming apps, allowing them to all enjoy the same show or movie at the same time. Digital picture frames can display photos being sent in real time, long-distance friendship lamps light up in your home when your loved one touches theirs, and of course FaceTime, Zoom, Jitsi, Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger video, Houseparty, and a long list of others allow us to video chat at any time.
Of course technology can’t replace hugs or address the deeper problems of isolation and depression caused by the pandemic, but let us not further compound these challenges by approaching Thanksgiving gatherings as an all (“in-person is the only way”) or nothing (“if we can’t gather in-person then we can’t gather at all”) proposition.
2. Live in the tension between seemingly opposite emotions.
It is still possible to cultivate a sense of gratitude amid the grief of this upcoming Thanksgiving. We don’t say this lightly, or to minimize what others are going through, especially those fighting for their lives or those who have lost loved ones because of COVID-19.
We’ll need to learn to live in the tension between seemingly opposing emotions. Though it may feel counterintuitive — and even scary and saddening — the gratitude we are struggling to muster is more likely to be found by embracing our current realities, not avoiding them.
Holding this tension is not easy, but as we near the season of longing in Advent, we are reminded it is possible. Many of us will feel this longing in new ways this year. It’s OK to spend this year waiting for those sweet reunions of family. This holiday season will come and go. In future years, we will all remember it solemnly, along with the many lives lost to COVID-19.
As we look to not just Thanksgiving, but forward further ahead to Christmas celebrations, may it remind us that grief shall not get the final word (1 Corinthians 15:55).
3. Adopt a more biblical view of “normal.”
Like you, we long for “normal.” But helping others through disasters over the last 15 years has taught us that our gratitude is not dependent on “normal” or on our favorite holiday traditions. It is not suffering that threatens to steal our gratitude, but rather our very notion of normal that is the true culprit.
Gratitude does not require normal, nor should we define normal as the absence of suffering. Ironically, it’s actually our longing for normal that is most likely to rob us of experiencing gratitude as we face a global crisis this Thanksgiving.
Yet, these definitional errors have found their way into how most of us living in the West have come to understand the world in which we live. It’s so common that social psychologists actually have a name for this mindset: the “just” worldview. We tend to believe that if we are good, good things will happen. It’s difficult, then, to make meaning when bad things happen to us.
Instead of longing for a normal that never was, may we instead look to scriptural examples of gratitude and suffering co-existing: from the birth of Christ in a manger to the resurrection of Christ after crucifixion.
Although COVID-19 has stretched on longer than most expected, it is still temporary. Similarly, the way we celebrate Thanksgiving this year does not mean it is how we will have to spend all our future Thanksgivings. COVID-19 is not forever — it will pass — and it will pass sooner if we do our part by staying at home this Thanksgiving.
Author’s note: For resources to help you get through the challenges of the holidays ahead, as well as help others, the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI) provides resources, including manuals, devotionals, videos, tip sheets, and more. Also see HDI’s 6-month impact report describing how they have helped during the pandemic and for additional resources.