In the past month, COVID-19 case counts and positivity rates in Illinois have skyrocketed, prompting Gov. J.B. Pritzker to institute stricter guidelines for gatherings. While he stopped short of a mandatory stay-at-home order, Chicago and its collar suburbs are under a stay-at-home advisory. 

Traditional Thanksgiving gatherings, which bring multiple families and many guests from different households under one indoor roof for hours are looking too risky for many. Throughout the Oak Park-River Forest area, local residents are coming up with new ways to celebrate the day and keep family close, even if that closeness is facilitated by a computer screen rather than a dining room table.

Oak Park resident Beth Kregor says her family’s plans for the holidays have definitely changed, noting that both she and her husband have family nearby.

“We’ve had the blessing and the curse in years past that we could hit two family Thanksgivings in one day,” Kregor said.

She acknowledges that the adults always enjoyed travelling to Wheaton and St. Charles for two feasts, though the children were just a bit confused about the two large meals in one day. 

This year, though, family visits are out. Kregor’s mother, who lives in a retirement community, can’t have visitors, and Kregor said it no longer seemed wise to take part in large gatherings.

After hearing some advice to plan the day and make it celebratory even if it was not filled with the normal traditions, Kregor began taking steps to make the day special for her husband John, her 7-year-old son Robert and 3-year-old daughter Hannah. 

In the weeks leading up to the holiday, she checked out library books that talked about Thanksgiving and read the children books that her mother sent about the holiday.

She polled friends about their plans and checked out suggestions on the Oak Park Working Moms Facebook page as well. One suggestion she might try is letting her kids draw pictures of family members to place around the table. Her mother-in-law suggested trying a Zoom karaoke-style singalong, and Kregor plans to send a special treat for her mother to enjoy.

One thing that she knows won’t be lacking? The food, although she admits it won’t be the same without other family members around the table. 

“I keep mentioning the food piece, but my husband’s having trouble getting excited about it,” she said. “I have a feeling he’ll end up pulling out all the stops.”

For chef and Oak Park Eats Editor Melissa Elsmo, pulling out all the stops is definitely the way to go, even if that looks a lot different than it would in a typical year. 

As a chef, she doesn’t deny that Thanksgiving cuisine is not the most exciting, but she has embraced the holiday.

“I’m such a sucker for tradition and nostalgia,” Elsmo said.

A normal Thanksgiving feast would include her parents, her mother-in-law and friends grilling a turkey and enjoying roughly one billion side dishes, she estimates. 

The day after Thanksgiving was a big part of the tradition as well, with the well-established leftover day. As many as 30 friends would crowd into her Oak Park bungalow in pajamas, bearing leftovers and ready to watch movies, eat and relax all day. 

“Clearly, we’re making massive changes to two decades of tradition,” Elsmo said.

Her college-aged son tested positive for COVID-19 right before the holiday. While he feels fine, Elsmo says the family is resigned to missing him at the table this year as he quarantines in Minnesota. It doesn’t seem safe to see her parents in Wisconsin or her mother-in-law.

“The long and short of it is, I think I have three people and a 15-pound turkey for the day,” Elsmo said.

Nevertheless, her plans are to “do it up,” and she states it is worth the time and energy. She knows many local businesses are struggling, so she is trying to shop local as much as possible, ordering her centerpieces from Moss and her turkey from Carnivore.

She also has big plans for leftover day. While the day can’t go on as planned, each family will participate at their own home by choosing a movie and making baskets of leftovers to drop off outside the other families’ homes. 

Each family is also creating a special cocktail to go along with the theme of the movie, and they will plan Zoom conversations between each film.

While she says she is sad about not being able to recreate the epic leftover day of years past, she will still put her heart and soul into the holiday. 

“Create a sense of fun and whimsy,” Elsmo said. “Make you and your family feel safe. This is the year to cancel your plans and change it up. Do what you need to do to make your family feel special.”

Sarah Corbin of Oak Park is taking that message to heart. Her family has scaled back to an immediate-family-only celebration instead of the usual 20-plus guests they usually host. 

She notes that in normal times, they would play a Thanksgiving “Jingo” game — think Bingo but with historical facts about Thanksgiving and foods, with white elephant prizes for winners. 

This year’s Corbin’s mother, Nora Abboreno, suggested they play the game over Zoom. Bingo cards have been emailed, and the white elephant prizes, sourced from people’s homes, will be mailed across the country.

With far-flung participants including an aunt who lives at Belmont Village in Oak Park, aunts and uncles from California and Seattle and cousins from Virginia, Naperville and Park Ridge, Corbin thinks this year we’ll be a “pretty big do.”

Sounds like the recipe for a successful holiday.

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