My wife’s favorite holiday is Thanksgiving.

It outpaces Christmas, Easter, New Year’s Eve and all those other special days of the year.

Her birthday falls during T-Day week, too, which turns Thanksgiving into a not-to-be-missed combination family gathering and festive birthday party.

But it’s the family get-together part she loves most.

And so in early September we held a family council to plan this year’s Thanksgiving soirée. It seemed clear the pandemic would still be a problem, making crowding into any of our houses — en masse — a non-starter.

So we celebrated early — way early — with a two-day, four-family camping expedition on a warm October weekend.

We cooked meals outside on cookstoves and barbecues. Instead of crowding around a dining room table, we ate at long picnic tables. We hiked, watched kayaks and rafts zoom by on the American River and chatted in the open air.

We pondered what we could do if the pandemic threat miraculously eased by Thanksgiving Day. But, of course, that didn’t happen.

Instead, the crisis is more severe, day by day, with exponential growth of new COVID-19 cases. Traditional, extended-family, Thanksgiving Day gatherings are extremely risky.

In the Finger Lakes, with extended family members living close by, this may come as a particular blow if not everyone has safely quarantined. Plus, Thanksgiving Day is often a combination family celebration and unofficial sendoff for snow birds heading south for the winter.

This year the health of all family members is at risk if they go big with a celebration.

Last week in a teleconference about the current tsunami-like “third wave” of COVID-19 infections, Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University warned that group gatherings are major “accelerators” and responsible for most of the surge in cases.

And Thanksgiving?

“Give thanks at Thanksgiving, not the virus,” he said. “Declare a COVID holiday in 2020 so you can give thanks in-person in 2021.”

Some of my fondest memories of growing up in Lakewood, N.Y. are of Thanksgivings at my Uncle Gordy and Aunt Ethel Puls’ house. Three families, multi-generational, and a collection of friends would gather for dinner served in a spacious, finished basement. The Christmas Day celebration and dinner was a replay, just with different music and decor.

A ping-pong table, card tables and folding chairs were pressed into service to eat the meal that had been cooked upstairs. Between mouthfuls, there were compliments about the feast, toasts, gibes, and an overall, warm familial camaraderie.

Those memories contribute to Thanksgiving being one of my favorite holidays, too.

Even though we had an early celebration this year, our family decided Thanksgiving Day needed something. So my wife organized a traditional potluck — aided by Zoom. We’ll safely shuttle portions of homemade cranberry bread and our famous stuffing to our kids’ homes, in exchange for portions of their cheesy onions, a traditional green bean casserole, mashed potatoes and of course, homemade pies. And yes, turkey.

Then we will all Zoom in and eat the same meal together. It’s as close to a safe family celebration as we can have.

It won’t be the same as what most of us have treasured about this holiday. But I’ll be fondly remembering the folks gathered around those Lakewood basement tables, later moving upstairs to dance the polka (the polka!) to burn off calories.

I will especially be thinking about an older cousin who had traveled to Germany as an exchange student. His lengthy slide show of that trip was dragged out at every major holiday family gathering — and was required viewing for the family.

He died in April of COVID-19, the first in our extended family. Our plan is to stay safe in the hopes that he will be only one.

Fitzgerald has worked at six newspapers as a writer and editor as well as a correspondent for two news services. He splits his time between Valois, NY and Pt. Richmond, CA. You can email him at Michael.Fitzgeraldfltcolumnist@gmail.com and visit his website at michaeljfitzgerald.blogspot.com.

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