22 Ways to Make Thanksgiving Into Your Own Weird, Perfect Holiday

If you can't go see your family or play charades with your friends, why not smash some decorative gourds in the street with a bat?
22 Ways to Invent Your Own Thanksgiving Traditions This Year
Collage by Cathryn Virginia
"Happy" "Holidays" 2020 is a series about feeling connected and vaguely festive during the coronavirus pandemic.

This November will mark the first year that I won't begrudgingly appear in a Thanksgiving variety show put on by "the kids." (“Kids” meaning, like: If you're actively a grandchild, you're expected to participate, even if you've smoked cigarettes for a decade and have the crow's feet to prove it.) Acts include fortune-telling, musical numbers, stand-up, and "commercial breaks" that are in fact even more performances, as there's no escape to be found here. It's always goony, uncomfortable, done for the sake of older relatives, and sort of nice even though it sort of sucks—which is also the way I’d describe Thanksgiving, as a day.


This isn't the only Thanksgiving tradition I'll break with as I skip this year's out-of-state dinner because of the pandemic. (That's not all bad. I'll also dodge the rule that men and boys can't sit until every woman and girl is settled in front of her turkey-shaped placemat.) Instead, like a lot of other people, I'll figure out how to spend the day outside of my family's framework.

So: What… to do here? Maybe you're also trying to sort out what to do about not traveling or hosting. Maybe you didn't do that to begin with and have the day to yourself again, or are missing Friendsgiving. (Maybe you're cramming people together despite the pandemic, in which case, go read something else, and I sincerely wish you good luck and good health, even if I think you should reserve your bravado for rewards greater than supermarket pie, hair-raising political rhetoric, and a dry cough.)

If you can't be near as many, or any, of the people that make this holiday represent anything other than stolen land, consider putting together your own new traditions. Rites and rituals make everything meaningless feel less so, which is why we bother with them. Someone has to come up with them first, though, and you don't have to stick to the ones you know this year! You're grown; do whatever you want; forget a variety show! (Sincerely: I will miss my talented cousins very much, and I deeply regret that I won't hear "Shut Up and Dance With Me" as I've never heard it before—and that's "played haltingly on a recorder"–style, baby.) Here are some thoughts on making up what constitutes a "holiday" for yourself this time around—and maybe coming away with newfound traditions to carry into the future.

  1. Use the interactive map Native Land to learn more about the Indigenous peoples who lived wherever you're spending your day. With care, use this to guide a land or territorial acknowledgement, which recognizes the Indigenous and people and history that came before, and were often violently removed or displaced, from North America. Here's a guide from Chelsea Vowel about doing this with the intention of really learning about and honoring the people who came before you.
  2. "Awareness" is almost never enough on its own. Donate to causes in support of Indigenous and First Nations peoples and communities, like The National Indigenous Women's Resource Center, American Indian College Fund, and Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits.
  3. Whatever your own meal looks like: Set aside part of your budget for others' dinners if you can. You can provide 10 meals per dollar through Feeding America. If you're having a small get-together, No Kid Hungry offers a how-to guide to hosting a Friendsgiving donation drive. If you have a few nonperishables you're not using or can start a collection in your area for cans and boxed food, see what your food bank or shelter can and can't use. If you want to do a specific Thanksgiving-themed drop, again, check with pantries and shelters about what they need, but a lot of places often ask for boxed macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes, canned green beans and cranberry sauce, and so on. Many places will welcome baby food.
  4. Pay someone's delinquent water bill if you have the means, and, either way, share the link so that people who aren't aware of the Detroit Water Project can see if it's something they're able to do.
  5. Find a way to adjust the worst dish someone always insists is their specialty in order to make it actually good for once. I don't want to talk about which one I dislike, in case someone I'm related to reads this… but, look, it's whatever the hell that "pear appetizer" is supposed to be. It's yogurt on a few sliced pears? Thinking back a sec here—could it actually be true that Grammy called this "fruit nachos?" Why am I eating Dannon on Thanksgiving, dog? If we decide to interpret this loosely—pulling back the focus to "pear appetizer," if (definitely) not "fruit nachos"—I can both honor my late grandmother and not have to gruesomely pretend a raisin is a black bean for  the sake of whimsy and politeness. I could make gorgonzola-and-walnut salad, prosciutto-wrapped pears, or pear and brie toasts. Find your version of this and text a picture to your muse if you can, being all like, "Not exactly your green beans—what could be!—but I wanted to have you at the table somehow this year." That's an appropriately Thanksgiving-ish tone to strike: a little judgmental, yet ultimately warm.
  6. Imagine how sick sandwiches made of leftovers could be if they were constructed first, out of their fresher, first-generation components. Actually, just do that—cut right to the chase and make them for the main course on the day itself. Necessity and desire will allow you to leave a little bit for leftover-leftover sandwiches, too, then compare your findings about which is superior. My assemblage goes: sourdough slice, gravy layer, mashed-potato binding-agent layer, poultry, stuffing, then the same in reverse as you finish the stack. This is about what you like, though, so go ahead and put cranberry sauce on it if you want, ya freak.
  7. One of my ex-boyfriends famously equipped his city Thanksgivings with soup dumplings and Popeyes biscuits in addition to the requisite green bean casseroles, etc. Whatever we think of him now: That's so stylish! Follow his lead, if in only this one way, by introducing an incongruous, perfect menu item to a traditional holiday spread, whatever that usually means for you. The key here is to keep the variable count low, which will make both the wild card(s) and the regular-style food you serve seem more special and complementary. If you normally enjoy a Sichuanese feast, maybe add pigs in a blanket. If you are more inclined toward jollof, do a li'l bit of a crepe, or something. In any event: Flamin' Hots should obviously be the new salami river in your cheese plate.
  8. If you have food delivered, parsimony is NEVER the wave, and especially on an eating-based holiday. Send the deliveryperson off with a 100 percent tip and a to-go plate (ask, first, if they don't eat certain things; customize accordingly). If you pick up takeout, tip 100 percent and bring a holiday offering of some kind. (HAHA at "of some kind"—I clearly mean a bottle!)
  9. Are you aware that Baskin-Robbins sells a turkey-shaped ice cream cake? I got one once and had them write THE FUTURE IS HERE on it in lime green icing script, and it was too chic for words. (It wasn't Thanksgiving. I consider it an incredible tip to share with you that you can get any of their holiday-motif cakes at any point during the year.)
  10. Watch Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Obviously! If we can't make sojourns of our own, we can remember everything that's nightmarish about Thanksgiving-clogged treks homeward by way of this classic.
  11. Play street baseball with a friend using decorative gourds as the balls. They have enough heft to pitch well, but will still explode satisfyingly, and you can do this at a decent distance from other people, unlike football.
  12. If the idea of joyously smashing things instills you with the festive spirit: There's no official law against having a piñata on Thanksgiving. Fill it with decorative gourds (for baseball after!!), candy corn, and airplane liquor bottles.
  13. Have a one-person pie contest, aka make two pies and pit them against each other. For each person who you're spending the day with and can add to the fray, add another two pies. If you are doing this with others, it's fine—and even preferable—to overlap, in terms of who makes what sort. It gives you an even sharper opportunity to clown them, or to… learn how to make a better pie with dignity and acceptance, should your pie be the grim pie.
  14. Set the table by making commemorative decorations that you'll be able to use long into the future, like, "Those were from that really weird year when we had to figure out our own holiday and made these for the table, and it ended up being a great time." I'm going to hand-dye napkins, which is really easy with some Rit dye and 100 percent cotton cloths or cut-up kitchen towels. (Make a few extra sets of six and you'll also have plenty of holiday gifts handled.)
  15. Assign a dress code for yourself and whoever's around—or assign each other outfit challenges. In the former case, I'd want to look like "pastel avant-garde," and in the latter, I'd make my partner dress as "Music Teacher Who Loves Being a Music Teacher," for fun and sport.
  16. Send texts to the people who feel most like family to you expressing gratitude, or, if that's a bit much for you, one of those horrible horny-emoji  chain text-messages. You know—it has like, an ear of corn as a D. Not my style, but I think a lot of people like them!
  17. Make and send end-of-year care packages. Or drop some off to elderly neighbors. I recommend candles, cookies, little tiny succulents, and the aforementioned dyed napkins.
  18. Observe a low-stakes saying-of-grace, which doesn't have to be religious in any way if that's not your bag. Keep things lo-fi and quotidian, gratitude-wise, because I think we often elide day-to-day/ambient/cultural things to fall all over ourselves about stuff like the people we love (boo), this beautiful meal (hiss), etc. Like, that rocks, but how boring! I'm glad I live in a world where I get to interact with pinball, Scottie Pippin's salad days/bone structure, this remarkable Twitter account called Old School Flyers that collects and posts the bills for old hip hop shows (how does it have under 4,000 followers?), the whole fact of cashmere. What are the smallest things you can honor? I'm doing my best airport-book voice right now: Tiny enrichments are what moor us through Fuck Times like these. Good to take stock of that, feel anchored in it.
  19. Reach out to the older people in your life and have them tell you about the most memorable Thanksgiving of their lives. Who started a dramatic food fight? Who dropped the turkey? Who accidentally revealed a family secret? (Shoutout to the time one relative looked a beat too long at another's phone over her shoulder and the latter had a meltdown so vile that I chose to escape by canoe.) If it's applicable: Help bad things turn, as they can sometimes naturally do, into funny-ass legends that are just… another part of how it goes sometimes. Things to be taken in stride, or even grinned at, from a distance.
  20. Take a few minutes to have a nice drunk Zoom with The Cousins and hear about what they're thankful for, or hoping for, this year.
  21. I've never known how, exactly, Arlo Guthrie's 18-minute anti-war banger "Alice's Restaurant" became the semi-official song of this holiday. I LOVE it, though, and have always delighted in the alternative-radio ritual of playing the whole-ass thing, even though it hogs airtime, on Thanksgiving Day. Listen to it, for the first time or the many-eth. I also think any longish song can and should take its place, if you just believe. I recommend "Outer Nothingness" by Sun Ra, or the nice, elongated dissolution of "New Grass" by Talk Talk—"errant days filled me," so pretty and sort of on the nose. Still, though… "Alice's Restaurant." It's so good for the purposes of yelling the lyrics at people; the song all but teaches them to you as you go! "You can get anything you want!”
  22. Understand, as you undertake any of these or other holiday-architecting weirdo pursuits: You're allowed to use them as you go from now on. Make them good ones—for once, or for keeps.

Amy Rose Spiegel is the author of two books about having sex and otherwise feeling decent. Follow her on Twitter.