Thanksgiving, that uniquely American holiday of family, football and fattening up, is on a COVID diet in 2020.

“From 12 to 4” is how Frank Fani, a salon owner in Racine, Wisconsin, describes this year’s family get-together to Anadolu Agency.

“It’s going to be me and my wife and my daughter and her daughter. Usually we have 12 in our immediate family.”

But Wisconsin is now seeing one of the biggest US surges in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths since the pandemic began.

“I’ve got four grandchildren I don’t get to see, except on Skype. (But) it’s not the same thing.”

More than any other American holiday, Thanksgiving, always held the last Thursday of November, is synonymous with a gathering of family members.

And they gather to feast on turkey and gravy and stuffing and all the trimmings, including mashed potatoes and string beans.

But COVID is this year’s unwanted guest; some states, including Illinois and Michigan, are strongly advising, even mandating, a break from big gatherings. Although difficult to enforce, some states are mandating that in-home gatherings can’t exceed 10 people, with the potential for hundreds of dollars in fines.

And the US government’s Centers for Disease Control issued new guidelines just in the last week, recommending that Americans don’t travel for Thanksgiving. It was a shock for a nation that normally sees its biggest yearly travel days right around the holiday.

“The tragedy that could happen is that one of your family members is coming to this family gathering and they could end up severely ill, hospitalized or dying,” said the CDC’s Dr. Henry Walke at a news briefing. “And we don’t want that to happen.”

On Monday, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, warned that the results from big gatherings of people with no masks now might be seen in two to three weeks’ time: spikes in coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths.

Still, the government’s Transportation Safety Administration reported that this past Friday and Sunday, more than a million Americans flew on commercial airlines both days; those are the largest numbers since March, when the pandemic began in the US.

But plenty of people aren’t taking chances.

“Low-key,” is how Kristyn Bartlett, a Racine clothing boutique owner, describes her Thanksgiving.

She’s spending the holiday with her adult kids, and that’s it.

“My mother is staying home, and I’ll just make sure [me and my sons] go by, and we’ve been doing ‘grandma drive-bys’, where we just stop and say hi to her off the porch.”

“You have to be creative right now, and be safe.”

“We usually do something bigger,” says Racine hair stylist Dawn Yager, like a trip to a restaurant with her extended family.

But this year, it’s going to be just her and her sons at home.

“I miss it,” she says of the get-togethers, “but I want everything to get better, so I’m gonna comply.”

The forgotten holiday

Thanksgiving has gotten a bit lost in the American psyche over the years, sandwiched between the increasingly popular Halloween and the behemoth that is Christmas.

Every year, social media users try to outdo each other with how early they spot Christmas decorations going on sale in department stores. Sometimes, that can be as early as July.

And pop-up stores dedicated only to Halloween goods spring to life by late August.

But there’s no such dedication to Thanksgiving. Decorations for the holiday have all but disappeared in recent years.

The Macy’s flagship store in Chicago boasts impressive, enchanting Christmas motifs in their street-side window displays – long before Thanksgiving even arrives.

When a couple of window-gazers are asked whatever happened to that holiday called “Thanksgiving,” they reply: “We don’t know, but they just passed it up! Right after Halloween, [Macy’s] put Christmas stuff up. It’s all about the money!”

Mary Kaprelian, co-owner of Racine’s Main Street General Store, has been fighting to keep the holiday alive with special Thanksgiving candles and dishes.

And even before COVID arrived, she was lamenting Thanksgiving’s diminished stature.

“I miss everyone being around the table, and everyone had to go around the table and say what they were grateful for.”

“And you know, sometimes they were funny things, and those are things that no one can take away from you. That’s why Thanksgiving is so important, those memories are so special.”

A complicated history 

Thanksgiving is the story of the earliest English colonists – the pilgrims – who took a perilous journey to America on the ship the Mayflower in 1619.

They celebrated a successful, life-saving fall harvest in 1621 with a big feast as a way of giving thanks to a Native American tribe who helped them survive.

The holiday was informally celebrated for years in America’s New England region, but it wasn’t until author Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned to turn Thanksgiving into a national holiday that President Abraham Lincoln agreed, in 1863.

Hale long argued that Thanksgiving would be a way to heal the nation after the Civil War.

And every year, the US president offers an official “pardon” to a bewildered live turkey outside the White House, sparing it from a spot at a dinner table.

Despite the holiday’s goodwill origins, not everyone sees it so comforting.

“The story of Thanksgiving serves two purposes,” says Dr. Ruth Gomberg-Munoz, an anthropology professor at Chicago’s Loyola University.

“It whitewashes the history of genocide perpetrated by the descendants of those colonists against Native Americans and it provided a nice origin story that Americans could feel good about.”

Football and shopping 

And while Thanksgiving Day is also known for parades, notably the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, the day has also been largely hijacked by professional football, for better or worse.

For decades, a single, televised NFL game was played on the day; later, a second game was added that followed the first; then, a third game that followed the second. Many Americans now spend the day (and night) watching non-stop football, in between bites of turkey and pumpkin pie.

And another tradition born out of Thanksgiving: the ferocious start to Christmas shopping.

Department stores have long been opening their doors to “Black Friday” Christmas shopping deals, the day after Thanksgiving. And for decades, stores opened their doors increasingly earlier on Friday — sometimes at the stroke of midnight, and in many cases, even on Thanksgiving day itself, despite its status as a national holiday.

But in recent years, facing pushback from traditionalists, more retailers are backing off Thanksgiving Day and going back to Friday openings.

And a few years ago, the so-called “Cyber Monday” of on-line shopping deals, happening after Thanksgiving Day, surpassed Black Friday as an even bigger money-maker for retailers, with nearly $3 billion in online sales.

Still, Thanksgiving Day, its original spirit somewhat forgotten, and its popularity overshadowed, remains a beloved American holiday.

And one benefit of fewer people at those Thanksgiving feasts? More food for the feasters.

“We’ll eat more,” says Bartlett, the boutique owner.

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