Intimate gatherings will keep the holiday magic alive this year

Holiday. Local families are figuring out how to salvage the enchantment of the holidays as Covid cases come roaring back.

13 Nov 2020 | 01:48

Danielle Linguanti, a business teacher at Goshen High School, married into a Thanksgiving tradition with a 60-year history. Her husband’s family has been getting together with another family since their grandparents met on Long Island generations ago. It started as a chance for the men to swap hunting and fishing stories. As the families spread out – north to Saugerties, south to Florida – “the oddest thing” happened, said Linguanti. “That friendship just continued on, despite the distance.”

One of Linguanti’s favorite parts of the day is when Uncle Scholar (“his name is not Scholar, and he’s not our uncle”), a retired schoolteacher, gets up and speaks. “He has everyone at the table stand up and hold hands. He says grace, and then everyone goes around and says what they’re grateful for. Sometimes it ends up being a little emotional. He’s in his 90s, and he still gets up. He doesn’t write a speech, but he speaks from heart. It’s poetry.”

Two years ago Linguanti and her husband took over from the older generation, hosting about 20 people at their house in Warwick, N.Y. “It was absolutely wonderful,” she said. “If you want to have this sense of family, community, caring, this long-term bond? This is it. I hate to sound corny, but it’s a truly magical experience.”

A conversation, driven by the younger generation, about the logistics this year was a short one. Linguanti’s father-in-law gently put the kibosh on the idea of getting together. They’re all hoping to start up again next November. Uncle Scholar will be sitting tight in Tampa – a situation he has come to terms with gracefully, setting the family tone.

Linguanti is going to miss the magic, and she won’t try to replicate it, except for one part. “We’ll certainly talk about what we’re grateful for,” she said.

Instead, the Linguantis and their two-year-old son will head to the Saratoga area to spend the holiday with Danielle’s grandmother – who can’t travel this year to be with other family, like she usually does. It will be just the four of them.

In the silver linings department, they’ll have a rare stretch of quality time together. Particularly during the school year, Danielle doesn’t get to see her grandmother as much as she’d like. “Oh my gosh, she’s definitely thankful to be able to spend any time with family,” said Linguanti. “She’s certainly open-minded to it being different this year. She’s just happy to be able to celebrate with someone.”

Baked ziti and a Christmas tree

Now that they have a house of their own, Jamie Lewandowski and her boyfriend are excited to take on the mantle of hosting Christmas. “It just makes me feel proud to be able to host my larger family,” said Lewandowski, 40. “That’s a big deal for me, to be able to do it, to be able to invite my family.”

In August, the family moved from their Long Island apartment to an old house in Chester, N.Y., which puts them two and a half hours closer to Lewandowski’s mom upstate and within commuting distance for their jobs – hers as a teacher’s aide at Orange-Ulster BOCES, his as general manager of a hotel on Long Island.

Their house feels like a real home, with a playroom and a bedroom for their three-year-old son, a yard for their dog, and space for Lewandowski’s youngest sister. Busy as the couple has been with their daily commutes, Lewandowski hopes to find time to decorate the yard. “I’ve never been able to do that before,” she said. They’ll have a Christmas tree and stockings hung over the fireplace.

For Thanksgiving, the family will converge as usual up near Utica, N.Y., where Lewandowski’s parents and two sisters live. For Christmas, they’ll do the reverse: her parents and two elder sisters, along with their husbands and kids, will make the two-hour drive south to visit them.

Lewandowski told her mom about her plan. “Now that we have the house, I said, ‘Listen, I’ll take the burden off you.’ Not like it’s a burden. But it’s a lot.”

Lewandowski is not overly concerned about Covid. One of her sisters works in a nursing home and is tested twice a week, Another sister works at a group home that does testing. Lewandowski herself is screened daily entering the school where she works. “We all know that we’re, knock on wood, that we’re good,” she said. “So I wouldn’t just invite anybody that I wasn’t sure that I knew was okay. It’s still the immediate family. I’m not doing aunts, cousins.” She laughed. “No, I don’t have the patience for that.”

One difference this year is that Lewandowski’s household is vegetarian, so lasagna or baked ziti will be the centerpiece dish. “I told my parents that if they wanted to make a turkey, they can make the turkey and bring it, but I wouldn’t even know how to make a turkey anyway.” She will try her hand at some of the sides that her mom usually serves, like stuffing and creamed cauliflower. “It’s not going to be as good as how she makes it,” she laughed.

For the first time in his life, her son will wake up in his own house on Christmas morning. “We want to make it as memorable as possible for him,” she said. Already, in early November, he’s “full-blown into” the Christmas spirit, asking to listen to Jingle Bells. “We want to make it so he can’t wait to run down the stairs to see the tree. That’s the part I can’t wait for, most of all.” Though, she adds, “We have a cat, and I don’t know how well the Christmas tree will be, by the time Christmas rolls around.”

‘Bubble’ with the baby

Terry Balton’s Thanksgiving tradition is to meet up with a gaggle of family, including cousins and in-laws, go to the Thanksgiving Day parade in Manhattan, then sleep over at a family member’s house in Brooklyn. “We all stay over there, you know, party party!” she laughed.

For the first year in who knows how long, “that’s obviously not going to happen, so everyone’s really bummed,” said Balton, an early childhood interventionist who lives in Milford, Pa. The summer family reunion was canceled, and maybe next summer’s, too. They’ve been making the best of the situation with a Sunday night family Zoom that’s been going strong for 25 weeks, with contingents from Georgia, California, and New York. But of course it’s not the same. “It’s really important in our family that we all do get together,” she said, “and it’s so hard now that all the cousins are getting older.”

Still, Balton is far from forlorn. “I’m feeling wonderful, are you kidding me?” Her first grandchild was born on November 2, and Balton’s plan is to get tested for Covid, take off work until she gets her results, then go down to the Philadelphia suburbs and “just kind of bubble there” with her daughter-in law, two of her sons, and baby Bailey. She went through this drill once before to meet her granddaughter when she was five days old.

Her family has been cautious, taking precautions like hand-washing and masking. Balton wore her mask to hold the baby. “I think my kids are more afraid of me getting it, actually, rather than them,” she said. They’ve made zero plans when it comes to what they’ll eat or do for the holiday, or how long she’ll stay – she’s hoping for a couple of days. “It’s all about the baby,” she said. “I could eat McDonald’s.”

It probably won’t come to that, however. “My one son is a very good cook and I am hoping he takes on that,” she said. “‘I usually don’t do Thanksgiving. I do Christmas, and we’re not having that, either.”

Staying home, eating steak

Justin Pullis’ holiday plans amount to “not a heck of a lot.” Usually, he and his wife and stepson make a tour of Sussex County, N.J., catching up with Pullis’ dad in his hometown of Vernon and visiting his in-laws in Byram. But his wife is immunocompromised – she suffers from rheumatoid arthritis – so his family has not been taking any chances.

“We came this far, vaccine’s announced,” he said. “Why throw all that good hard work away we’ve already done for a couple holidays?” If it means skipping one Thanksgiving and Christmas, “We can hold out.”

The family of three, along with their four dogs, will be staying home on their seven-acre farm in Wantage, N.J. They moved here a month ago so that Pullis, who works in information technology sales, could expand the beekeeping business that’s his passion, and add some alpacas down the line.

When it comes to the Thanksgiving menu, “we’re probably going to go above and beyond,” said Pullis. Instead of a ham or turkey, they might splurge on a nice steak, or else his wife’s favorite: king crab. “Obviously when there’s 20 people here, I’m not going to be buying prime ribs or filets.”

In addition to a deluxe menu, Pullis hopes the quiet holiday will offer his family a chance to reflect on the changed world we’re living in. “We’ve collectively lost so much through this entire pandemic,” he said. “This Thanksgiving there’s a lot of things you have to look at and really be thankful for, probably a lot of things most people took for granted before this.”

He’s looking ahead to when they’re sitting around eating turkey with their in-laws once again. “I’m just hoping people still remember the lessons learned, the shared collective experience we had trying to come together as a community and as a country,” said Pullis, “and try to maintain some of that solidarity.”

Tips for a safe holiday
Keep gatherings small or remote: The official advice is not to mix households. With Covid cases roaring back nationwide, “having people congregate in small, poorly ventilated indoor spaces for extended periods of time should be avoided,” said Orange County Health Commissioner Dr. Irina Gelman. “Now more than ever, residents must remain vigilant.” Gelman favors creative remote and contactless options.
Go outside: Dr. Saray Stancic, former chief of infectious diseases at the VA Hudson Valley Health Care System, recommends gathering outside, if possible.
Improve air flow: When gathering indoors, keep the air fresh and circulating. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends opening windows. Dr. Shelly Miller, a mechanical engineering expert at the University of Colorado, Boulder, recommends turning on exhaust fans above stoves and in bathrooms.
Keep your distance, eat in silence: Mask up and maintain six feet of distance between family units, especially from the elderly and all other vulnerable people. When masks come off to eat, avoid talking to minimize droplet spread, recommends Cornell’s Institute for Food Safety recommends. Sounds like a longshot, but it could cut down on those political disagreements?
Put up reminders: Hang signs to gently remind guests to wash their hands frequently.
Quarantine with your symptoms: Anyone not feeling well should stay home. “This is such a hard ask because Thanksgiving is such an important holiday when we celebrate family and the joy of gathering with those we love,” said Dr. Stancic. “This difficult moment will pass and soon, we will be back to some normalcy.”