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It’s Time to Start Thinking Creatively about Thanksgiving

This year’s festivities will be held under a new set of constraints. Let the experience design begin!

Matt Herlihy
Oct 15 · 6 min read

Barring a miracle, in less than two months we’ll be marking our first Thanksgiving in the time of coronavirus. Where this most American of holidays is normally beloved for its consistency, its 2020 version promises to be something quite different.

Those of us accustomed to robust gatherings of family and friends will instead face headcount limitations in the name of safety. While longing for shared poultry and side dishes, we’ll make do with individual portions and disposable cutlery. And rather than escape the late-autumn chill with warmth and coziness, we’ll more likely be stuck in someone’s backyard.

As if that weren’t enough, the most contentious election in modern history will be as recent in our collective memory as a fresh wound — or worse yet, will remain undecided. That time-honored tradition, the awkward family political debate, will await us with unprecedented intensity and rancor. Those plastic knives may end up saving lives.

And yet, there is hope. Like so many pivotal moments, this unique occasion offers a rich opportunity to think like a designer. We creative types love constraints! And our training and experience have taught us how to turn even the thorniest problem into an elegant solution.

So now’s the time to plot out a bold new design for Thanksgiving 2020. Guided by core principles of gratitude, gluttony, and safety, let’s examine our options for celebrating a beloved holiday under once-in-a-lifetime circumstances — without having a pox befall all our houses.

Of course, the savviest hosts among us have already considered this scenario and rented out a restaurant with a private outdoor space. Guests will be greeted by an affable physician with a quick-turn virus test, then enter the venue to find their holiday fare individually plated, tables and chairs placed at a proper remove, and glowing heat lamps arranged tastefully to offer respite from the cold. A socially distant string quartet may already be on retainer.

Welcome! Limit one per table. [Source]

But for the rest of us who lack such foresight, if not budget, the constraints will be more severe. Capacity is the most immediate concern. With nearly all epidemiological models predicting a spike in October and November, many states are likely to restrict the size of gatherings — perhaps even capping attendance to six individuals at a time. And while this quantity might be favorable for noise levels and parking, it presents a challenge for many extended families.

One solution is dividing a clan across several locations, keeping numbers manageable while maintaining an open videoconference line throughout. Simple and affordable hardware can allow for a relaxing pace while maintaining some connection across the group. (We at OX piloted a similar approach successfully in our safe-yet-enjoyable summer gathering, and while not the same as an all-hands blowout, it was glorious in its way.)

Alternatively, families might consider celebrating in shifts, where small groups rotate throughout the day according to a preset schedule. Or they could all convene simultaneously but dine in separate, far-flung parts of the house in order to limit long-term exposure—in effect, creating a kids’ table for everyone.

Finally, in a more intense scenario, hosting parents may simply limit capacity by inviting only their favorite offspring. Not only does this foster healthy competition among siblings to make the cut — the results might also provide a sneak peek at the structure of the old folks’ will.

Since mask-wearing will likely be compulsory when indoors — and Thanksgiving without eating and drinking is essentially pointless — hosts should plan on making full use of their yards, patios, or in more daring urban households, fire escapes. Procure outdoor tables and chairs soon if you must, and invest in an outdoor heater or two while you can. Given consumers’ lust for buying toilet paper back in March, now’s the time. (And if it’s already too late, erecting your own geodesic dome will turn heads and warm hearts.)

Also make arrangements for the viewing of football, another mandatory Thanksgiving element in any respectable household. Presuming the NFL season hasn’t yet collapsed in viral attrition, you’ll be wise to arrange a television by a window or fire up an old projector and screen. Since your guests will be delirious enough from pandemic fatigue to think the virtual fans and fake crowd noise are real, low-fidelity tech will be fine.

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Hope you don’t mind layers. [Source]

Unless you’re partying like it’s 1621, you will allow guests indoors if they must visit the facilities. But for safety’s sake, require them to wear a mask inside at all times — at the risk of being indelicate, even while using the bathroom. If you’ve not yet encountered the term toilet plume, you’ll thank me for stressing this requirement. (Spoiler alert: it involves effluvia.)

Remember, managing all of the above constitutes a significant act of kindness. So to those who will be the guests of others: Be gracious, since your hosts are attempting quite the high-wire act. Have patience, since they’re doing it all for the first time, and a few kinks are unavoidable.

Finally, if you’re a guest situated in non-balmy climes, be prepared to layer up in outdoor gear like never before. Thanksgiving may be the quintessential American holiday, but this year, treat it like you’re living in a period movie about old-timey Russia — floor-length fur coat, Cossack hat, even a stout pair of mukluks. For just this once, get ready to trade Norman Rockwell for Dr. Zhivago.

Of course, this being America, certain among us will ignore these precautions entirely.

They’ll snub their ruddy noses at scientific experts, crank the heat, pack their maskless kith and kin around the dinner table, and dish out a hearty communal serving of business as usual.

That plan may not be smart, but nonetheless, the instinct is understandable. Whatever the hue of one’s home state, late November will find us even deeper into a world where every day is Blursday. Half of our number will be especially despondent in processing the election results, if the numbers are even final. Being thankful for anything may be hard to fathom.

As the one secular holiday that virtually everyone acknowledges, Thanksgiving feels like an American entitlement, almost a birthright. It’s natural to feel like we’ve really earned this one after the year we’ve had.

We’ve sacrificed so much — our workplaces and schools, our restaurants and theaters, the freedom to socialize and travel that we’ve always enjoyed. We’ve been stuck at home with the same group of people long enough to make a baby. Some of us even have! (Not this author, blessedly.)

After everything we’ve been through, they can’t possibly keep us from the tryptophan-induced nap we so richly deserve, right?

The answer, of course, is the one nobody wants to hear—that once again, we all really should take one for the team.

But back to the designer’s mind. On the plus side, a creatively staged and safe Thanksgiving concept can give us something invaluable: data.

We can treat Turkey Day 2020 like a prototype, launch it like a pilot program, and measure what works and what doesn’t. We may not be able to draw ironclad conclusions linking certain safety measures and health outcomes. But if we’re smart about tracking and sharing our results — and amass a big enough sample size — we can identify trends with some confidence.

That will leave us a month to tweak our design in time for the December holidays, where we’ll try round two and gather more data. If all goes well, we won’t need to repeat our experiments at the end of 2021. But we will have a working model to pass to our ancestors — and around the turn of the next century, when COVID-98 strikes, they’ll be equipped to celebrate safely.

Of course, most of us will be dead and buried by then — or at least frozen in cryogenic torpor. But when our great-grandchildren dust off that creaky old Excel spreadsheet from way back in 2020, they’ll see our blueprint and have something new to be thankful for.

Boy, our ancestors were really something, they’ll say. Their nation was wracked by illness and fraught with division. And for some reason, they dressed like pre-revolution Russians. Which is especially weird, since it never gets below 85 degrees anymore.

But they made sacrifices when they needed to, they’ll conclude. And that has shown us the way.

Better By __

At The Office of Experience, we believe the experience is…

Matt Herlihy

Written by

Brand philosopher. Executive Director, Strategy, The Office of Experience. Author, speaker, and instructor.

Better By __

At The Office of Experience, we believe the experience is the brand®. The best brand experiences are better by design. But they’re also better by strategy, technology, and message. Better By explores the ways in which the world around us is made better by design.

Matt Herlihy

Written by

Brand philosopher. Executive Director, Strategy, The Office of Experience. Author, speaker, and instructor.

Better By __

At The Office of Experience, we believe the experience is the brand®. The best brand experiences are better by design. But they’re also better by strategy, technology, and message. Better By explores the ways in which the world around us is made better by design.

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