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How to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas in a pandemic? Ask the Jews.

Across America, families are struggling with how to cope with a holiday season without the traditions they look forward to all year long, and without those they love and are longing to see. Family gatherings for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve simply aren’t safe as COVID-19 cases spike across the nation. I have good news America – the Jews been through this already.

Image by iStock

We’ve already celebrated our biggest holidays: Passover fell right as COVID-19 was shutting down the world and we marked the High Holidays via Zoom. As you enter your Holiday season, you can learn from what we figured out along the way. You can keep the people you love safe while enjoying the holidays if you follow my tips below.

1. Make peace with where we are and find gratitude.

Before you plan your holiday, take a beat or two to be sad first. I felt real grief when I realized I really wouldn’t be with my family on Passover — something that was previously unfathomable. We are living through a war with a deadly killer, and it’s taken an enormous psychological toll on us all. It’s important to make space for your feelings and your mental health. I didn’t let myself do that at first on Passover, and I ended up crying over the family cookbook. Planning went better once I’d given myself the space to make peace with what was happening and accept it. Keep things in perspective, hundreds of thousands of Americans are sitting down to tables with a chair that will remain forever empty. Remember you’re doing this to keep the people you love safe so that you can celebrate for years to come.

2. Celebrate planning and plan to celebrate.

Image by Alix Wall

Start the festivities with the planning itself. This helps set the tone, especially for little ones, and takes some of the stress off. Make planning a fun family event. We planned the Passover seders as a family, with croissants and hot cocoa and coffee, talking about what we wanted to eat and how we wanted to pray and we ended up dancing to ridiculous kids music about frogs jumping on Pharaoh’s head. This past Saturday, my husband and I lit a fire, poured wine, ordered in Thai food and took down all my cookbooks. We ate and laughed and reminisced and planned an epic Thanksgiving menu. In the morning the whole family watched Thanksgiving cooking competitions on Food Network over pumpkin pancakes and debated apple crisp versus apple pie. It’s already starting to feel like a celebration at my house.

3. Know your audience

Trader Joe's mashed sweet potatoes with pecans

Trader Joe’s mashed sweet potatoes with pecans Image by Trader Joe's

Wilted mustard greens with shiitake mushrooms and Grand Marnier-spiked cranberry sauce will not be gracing my table this year. One-third of our three diners are in preschool. Instead, there will be sweet potato french fries and cornbread muffins and marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole. There will be butcher block paper and crayons instead of my wedding china.

Plan the day for those who are actually there and make it fun for them. We started Passover at 4 p.m. instead of 6:30 p.m. and instead of wandering off to play or being bribed with cookies to stay at the table, our three-year-old daughter was rapt with attention, learning the story of liberation from Egypt and singing songs and totally engaged. By accepting where we actually are in life, instead of holding ourselves to the impossible standard of a normal holiday, we had an amazing holiday I’ll always treasure.

4. Decorate too much

Anything that brings you joy is worth doing. Anything that makes your home feel festive and sparkly is essential. On Sukkot, we covered our sukkah in orange twinkly lights and filled it with flowers and ridiculous amounts of gourds. Our daughter is going to spend Thanksgiving covering our house in paper leaves, hand-traced turkeys, and baby pumpkins. Go overboard. Go full blown tacky. Lean into any goofiness and anything that makes you laugh. Take pictures.

5. Cook the damn thing

Southern Comfort: Chefs slice up a Texas barbecued brisket at Hill Country in New York. Image by Hill Country

I made an entire brisket for three people, and I have no regrets. It’s not the Jewish holidays without brisket! I had never made it before, and I made it wrong, but it came out delicious anyway. My house smelled like my mom’s house, and it felt wonderful. I also made an enormous apple cake that easily feeds ten. I made a stuffed cabbage recipe that feeds an army, and it’s happily waiting for me in my freezer any day I want comfort food. If it’s just not Thanksgiving without some special food — just cook the damn thing. Or at least get it delivered. For the record, I will be roasting a 14-pound turkey because that’s Thanksgiving to me. This is what freezers are for.

6. Don’t be a slave to Zoom and live streams

Zoom Seder

A Seder on Zoom

You should definitely call the people you are missing, and it’s wonderful to be able to see the faces of the people we love. That said, there is no need to stare at a computer screen while you eat. Zoom fatigue is real. Focusing on those who are far away can make us feel lonelier than ever. Spending your day glued to your computer isn’t celebrating. Structure your day so that you have plenty of fun planned with decorating, cooking and celebrating and spend an hour or so online with those you miss. Enjoy where you actually are, which brings me to my final point.

7. If it doesn’t bring you joy, you don’t have to do it

No one will know if you don’t cook that dish you never really liked but make because it’s tradition (goodbye gefilte fish!). Everything during a pandemic can feel cold and frightening, so feel free to let go of anything that isn’t bringing you joy. Always hated the family turkey trot? This is your year to sleep in. Don’t feel like wrangling with your toddler for three courses? Skip soup and serve pie first. Who’s gonna know? No one is there to judge you, and I’ll never tell. If you love to cook, cook everything you want. If you just want to watch football with your family, order in a whole Peking duck – at least it’s a bird. Make a new memory, one that hopefully you’ll share next year with those you are keeping safe by staying home.

Happy Thanksgiving from my family to yours. Please stay home and stay safe. Wherever you are and however you end up celebrating, it’ll be a year none of us ever forget.

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