I don’t know who put Omicron on the Christmas list, but it has arrived early and with Grinch-like determination to suck all the good cheer from the holidays.
We have two choices: (1) sulk, or (2) pull a Cindy Lou Who and dig deep for the true meaning of the season, maybe even break spontaneously into song — as long as we are outside in the fresh air where our fa la la’s won’t kill anybody.
During Thanksgiving of 2020, I began contemplating the glory of less-is-more holidays. Since then, rows of cars parked outside a house, hinting at a festive (germ-infested) soiree, could bring ostracism from neighbors or, worse, land the hosts in the headlines for their super-spreader event.
So I sought inspiration from a holiday long before Covid invaded our dining rooms when a tiny gathering also seemed like the right — the kind — thing to do.
I didn’t think much about this memory this November, when Covid numbers were dropping and extended family reunited, feeling somewhat safe. But now—sigh—substitute “ham” for “turkey” and this story is timely again.
In the fall of 1997, I was a few months into a relationship with a strapping ex-rower with tousled ginger hair and a tight-knit family back in Pennsylvania. We were in our 20s, living in New York, and I’d met his parents but hadn’t visited their stately home in Lancaster.
I didn’t know about the grand dining room with its cabinets of china and drawers of silver — enough place settings to serve a small colony. I hadn’t sat at either of the two antique dining tables, draped in crisp linen and bathed in chandelier light.
I’d yet to meet my rower’s fertile relatives whose progeny in velvet dresses and cranberry-stained Oxford shirts populated the long kids’ table. I hadn’t feasted on the giant turkeys (yes, plural), the corn casseroles, the sweet or mashed potatoes, the various stuffings, the six pies.
In 1997, my grandmother was alone in Arkansas. My grandfather had passed away a few years before, and it wasn’t easy for my gramma to travel to relatives back in Iowa where they had raised their four children.
Her kids all had their own busy families and our 80-year-old matriarch was past her hosting years. So I asked my new boyfriend if he might go with me to spend Thanksgiving with her.
Though he may have been thinking of the storm — a veritable Iowa tornado — his mom would be cooking up in her chef’s kitchen, he didn’t mention it. He said, yes, he would love to join me for turkey for three in Hot Springs.
My grandparents had a modest retirement home nestled in the Oauchita Mountains, bought with savings from my grandfather’s career as the general manager at Montgomery Ward.
There were no chandeliers, no ginormous Butterball birds, no overflowing helpings of casseroles, no nieces and nephews and hide-n-seekers, no bellowing laughter and fiery debates and wine flowing into the wee hours. There was just a very grateful grandmother and her oldest granddaughter and a new beau who made them laugh.
We had a simple meal with just enough food but not too much — my grandmother was frugal and didn’t like to waste anything. We ate at her kitchen table, and we took a stroll after our meal in her quiet neighborhood, which was nothing like the gritty city we loved but it was just right that night.
After that visit, my grandmother always talked about the time we came to spend Thanksgiving with her. The following year I went with my boyfriend to Pennsylvania and I learned how big an event the holiday is for his family and how much smaller our little Arkansas fete must have felt to him.
But he only spoke fondly of that quiet long weekend. We both learned that the number of people and platters of food have nothing to do with how much love is shared at a holiday table.
I married that guy a few years later (traveling to our wedding was the last airplane trip my grandmother was able to take). Despite a battle with infertility, we ultimately added four to the kids’ table at the Lancaster turkey-day extravaganza, which one year reached a record 46 guests.
The children make memories for life (and messes for almost as long) each year. By early November there is a buzz in our house as they ask incessantly how many more days until we go to Gramma’s house (Grandpa, who is only in charge of the fruit salad, doesn’t get top billing). No one can remember that Thanksgiving is always the fourth Thursday of November.
During a pandemic, that’s about all we can count on: Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday of November.
Otherwise, expectations have shifted. One small turkey will do. One pie, maybe two. Only a few cousins attended last year—some who already had the virus and others who were tested to protect their grandparents.
Even that felt risky to me, but this is a time of opposing views for many relatives: on the pandemic, the presidency, the very state of the fabric the pilgrims first began to weave 400 years ago. Households across the nation have made pledges to leave those views at the door, not bring them to the table, where gratitude—not division—is the lesson of the season.
Two of our family members did not attend the Pennsylvania gathering last year: me and my 14-year-old son Cameron, who is a child actor and had to be on set for Mare of Easttown a few days later.
No one in the cast dare be the guy who shuts down production, which, with stringent protocol and daily testing, was keeping several hundred people working — putting food on their holiday tables.
Photo Credit: Sarah Shatz / HBO
My son was sad but must have been listening when I stressed all the things we should be thankful for: that we had enjoyed so many family dinners together lately, that we’ve appreciated more sunsets, listened to more birds sing, slept in, and woken up each day with no foreboding symptoms.
My son got upset about missing his favorite holiday trip. Then he came to me later and said, “I’m sorry, Mom. I’m just tired. I’m really grateful about the shoot.”
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As we shared a simple meal made with love, I told him about the holiday his dad and I spent with Great Gramma Janette. I think one day he will be the type of guy who will go with his partner to cheer up a lonely relative.
This past September, that series Cameron — aka “Ryan Ross” — was working on garnered four Emmy awards and his screen mom, Julianne Nicholson, gave him a shout-out during her acceptance speech.
That turkey-for-two holiday taught him about commitment and work ethic, but also provided lessons in love — between a mother and son, and between a boy and his cast.
Photo Credit: Author
This year, the two turkeys made a comeback at my in-laws. It was joyous and raucous and decadent and delicious. The stacks of dishes were taller but the themes were the same as those quieter years: gratitude, family, love.
Omicron may clear the cars from the fronts of houses again this Christmas season, but a peaceful meal among several loved ones can be just as memorable. As I avoid the madness of holiday shopping, I’m also thinking of a less-is-more under-the-tree philosophy. Kids, you in?
Jill Johnson Mann is a writer and mom of four living in Connecticut. Visit jilljohnsonmann.com or follow @modelingmentor on Instagram to learn more about her adventures in writing, stage mothering, and model/talent scouting.