Elected officials share their (smaller than average) Thanksgiving plans

And they’re encouraging their constituents to celebrate in more intimate capacities this year, too.

By: - November 25, 2020 6:00 am

Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point, usually makes enough food to serve 35 people at Thanksgiving, but this year she’s planning on feeding about 15. (Photo courtesy of Housley.)

President-elect Joe Biden said he’ll likely be setting a table for three this Thanksgiving, a departure from his usual extended family get-together. President Donald Trump, whose annual Mar-a-Lago visit typically marks the start of his frequent seasonal trips to Palm Beach, will be spending the holiday at the White House. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has spoiled many things this year, including the kick-off to the holiday season. Though millions across the U.S. will be traveling to see loved ones for Thanksgiving, health officials are adamantly urging against it

Like many Minnesotans, elected officials will be celebrating Thanksgiving in alternative fashions. Some, like incoming state Rep. Erik Mortensen, R-Shakopee, are planning (allegedly outdoor) holiday gatherings as a show of defiance of state restrictions. 

Others, however, are planning more intimate Thanksgiving celebrations so as to keep the spread of COVID-19 at bay — and they’re encouraging others to do the same. 

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter

Carter and his family tend to spend Thanksgiving at his mother’s house, where they share a potluck-style meal. 

At the start of the pandemic, shared holiday meals — and all family get-togethers for that matter — transitioned to a virtual space for Carter. Since March, his family has scheduled regular Saturday Zoom calls; Thanksgiving will be held over Zoom this year, too.

“It’s been a more stressful year than most. It’s the kind of year where having the opportunity to get together and just sit in a living room all day, eat some food, watch football, tell stories and hug family members would be more needed than ever,” he said.

Carter said he recognizes it’ll be odd — blessing food over Zoom won’t quite feel the same. But his wife is a medical professional who has treated COVID-19 patients, so he has seen up close the stress, exhaustion and seriousness of the pandemic. That simply didn’t leave many other options, he said.

“This is a temporary period. We can either, in our actions, make it more or less temporary based on what we do and how we can protect one another,” he said. “I hope in the midst of all the holiday stress and laments about what is not, there’s also some space in which to breathe and celebrate what is.”

Former Rep. Nick Zerwas

Once an opponent of Gov. Tim Walz’s coronavirus restrictions, Zerwas changed his tune following a COVID-19 diagnosis nearly two weeks ago. 

For the past five years, Zerwas, his wife, Bette, and their son would travel to Pierre, South Dakota for a Thanksgiving meal shared with Bette’s family. That’s one of the few times of the year when her parents could see their only grandson. 

Thankfully, he said, his family’s been understanding. They’re a law enforcement family, so they’re used to missing holidays — first responders are needed 365 days a year. 

“[Staying home] is the decision that’s 100% right for our family,” he said.

Instead of a large homemade spread, Zerwas is opting for a Thanksgiving takeout package from Chow Grill in Elk River, one of his favorites. The following day, he’s going to head down to his smoker with a new thermal blanket he ordered and prepare a rack of ribs. Anything to look forward to and create a sense of normalcy, he added.

“When I was sick and in the hospital a few weeks ago, it was truly moving the number of immediate friends and family who dropped everything to call, send a card, reach out or bring a meal to my wife,” he said. “If we choose to celebrate at a distance, you’ll know your family will still be there for all those future holidays.”

Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope

Rest’s cranberry sauce is famous at her Thanksgiving gatherings; that’s why she’s making individual servings that she can then safely drop off at the homes of her family.  

Her sister-in-law will also be dropping off plates of food at the family’s doorsteps this year.

“We’re each going to stay in our own homes, we’re not mixing any households whatsoever,” Rest said.

Rest won’t spend Thanksgiving entirely alone, however; she’ll be kept company by her new nine-week old Westie, TascaTwo, for whom the day will likely include continued potty-training or chewing on Rest’s shoelaces. 

She added that not seeing her family in-person will be difficult, but not unbearable. She’s keeping her eyes set on the theme of the holiday: gratitude.

“We can do this. You’ve heard of Christmas in July — a lot of us might be doing that. Maybe if we have a vaccine by then, we could be having Thanksgiving in April, too.”

Gov. Tim Walz

This year is a departure from Walz’s typical Thanksgiving plan: Sharing a meal with friends and family, then sitting down to watch football with the neighbors. 

According to spokesperson Teddy Tschann, this year’s celebration will be quite a bit smaller: just the First Family and takeout from Colossal Cafe on Grand Avenue.

Tschann, ever on message, encouraged all Minnesotans to adhere to state guidelines when celebrating Thanksgiving.

Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley

Eken will spend Thanksgiving with his immediate family this year; usually, it’s a whole affair with his extended family, with a rotating host. 

This year, however, Eken and his immediate family are quarantined after one of their sons started displaying COVID-19 symptoms. Though he was initially planning on Thanksgiving being more intimate this year, it’s now necessary.

The family has still stayed connected over the phone on a near daily basis to make up for the lost in-person connections. 

“Phone calls will never make up for the loss of that personal connection when we see each other face to face,” he said. “But now’s a time to stay safe, not take any unnecessary risks and be especially considerate of the most vulnerable members of our community.”

Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point

Housley’s favorite holiday is Thanksgiving; there are no presents, so it’s just about being together.

Usually, she wakes up at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving to prepare a full menu: stuffed turkey, mashed potatoes with homemade gravy, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, green bean casserole, wild rice and salads — enough to feed 25 to 35 people. By around 4 p.m., she’d be freed up enough to hop in the shower, then frantically apply mascara — always cutting it close — before guests arrive at 4:45.

This year, Housley is making dinner for about 15. It won’t be a massive get-together, but her children and their families can stop by for food whenever or however long they’d like, if they’re comfortable with it, she said.

Housley said she wanted to be intentional about respecting her family’s individual decisions and comfort levels; two family members have already had COVID-19, and one of them found out about their exposure during a family Labor Day gathering.

Her family’s reactions varied: Some were angry, some left to get tested right away and others simply brushed it off.

“I just hope everyone stays safe, makes smart decisions and is aware of their surroundings and what other people’s feelings are about the virus. If someone wants to wear a mask as they stop by, or if they don’t want to stop by at all, that’s their choice and should be respected,” she said.

Though Housley said she hopes there aren’t too many leftovers this year, she knows that after Thursday, another big discussion will have to be had: What to do about Christmas. 

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and his family, who are spread across the country, decided not to get together for Thanksgiving this year. (Photo courtesy of Frey)

With parents on the East Coast, a sister in California and a brother in Puerto Rico, Thanksgiving is one of the few times of year that Frey is able to see all of his family.

As Thanksgiving approached, Frey and his wife were optimistic about bringing their newborn, Frida to meet his Grandma Sally. But as cases rose across the nation, the likelihood of their visiting seemed more bleak, and they canceled their tickets. 

“Grandma Sally is in her mid-90s. She’s a healthy broad and one tough cookie, but this poses a really difficult question about the risks associated with a global pandemic and a true guttural deep-seeded desire to meet your great grandchildren,” he said.

An average Thanksgiving for Frey is active and rambunctious. He usually meets up with some old track buddies to run a holiday 10K before taking an infamous nap. “I’m not a big napper, but people know not to mess with me for those couple of hours,” he said.

Then, food, music, dancing and booze abound: Frey’s grandparents were musicians and his parents, ballet dancers. His brother plays the banjo, and Frey usually mans the harmonica. 

This year will be quieter for Frey and his new family; his morning run will likely be solo. 

“This is an opportunity to maybe make new traditions that we can create now and can continue when we’re all together in person. Somebody mentioned we could all write poems. I thought that was a horrible idea,” Frey said. “But there’ll still be a chance to tell jokes, to tell stories. Maybe it’s an opportunity to fully appreciate what we have, and isn’t that supposed to be the underlying meaning of Thanksgiving?”

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Dylan Miettinen
Dylan Miettinen

Dylan Miettinen is a Reformer intern. A fourth-year student at the University of Minnesota, he was born and raised in Omaha, Neb. He currently serves as the editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper, the Minnesota Daily. He's also worked for CNN, the Minnesota Media and Publishing Association and the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast.