Some aspects of life are returning to pre-COVID norms, but we've changed our priorities around quality time — and a lot of us don't want to go back.

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This Is the Year of Friendsgivings
Credit: Getty Images

Stefanie Michaels couldn't be more thankful to be doing Friendsgiving this year.

The lifelong Los Angeleno is a travel expert who's been to over 50 countries and keeps her large online fanbase apprised of her journeys on AdventureGirl.com, but she won't be traveling for Thanksgiving. "I'm a fan of Friendsgiving every year, because for me friends are the family we chose to celebrate with," she says, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic "helped cement this ideal."

Michaels lives in a large city full of transplants from all around the world. She has very little family left, "but even when my parents were around, I always had a soft spot for friends who couldn't visit their families over the holidays. I never wanted anyone to feel alone." In 2020, when many contended with Zoom parties or smaller family gatherings, she hosted a Friendsgiving outdoors at her home. This year, instead of dashing off to Bora Bora or going on some other exotic adventure, she'll celebrate with friends again. 

She says people like her "have realized that friends are extended family," and retail brands have even picked up on the trend. "Head to any store and you'll find everything from clothes to home products with 'Friendsgiving' on them. That says it all!" Indeed a cursory search reveals "Gobble Til You Wobble" cups at Party City, a whole Friendsgiving paper dinnerware set at Target, a "Happy Friendsgiving" Yankee Candle (with the scent of pumpkin snickerdoodles loaded with cinnamon and vanilla), and Friendsgiving outfit ideas over at Nordstrom.

Friendsgiving isn't new. It's long been a trend among the just-out-of-college set or those who are far from family during the holidays. But the circumstances surrounding this holiday season in particular are a perfect storm for Friendsgiving to finally come into its own as an adult (and acceptable!) way to observe the November feast. Whether due to health concerns over the ongoing global pandemic, a lack of interest in consorting with family members who have abrasive political or social views, or an aversion to travel through packed airports, people are saying 'no, thanks' to the traditional Thanksgiving, and choosing to celebrate with friends.

"I wouldn't be surprised if this is the biggest year of Friendsgivings yet," says Kyle Potter, editor of Thrifty Traveler, a travel and flight deal website. "We're clearly not through the pandemic yet, and some hallmarks of our pre-COVID lives (like traveling for the holidays) haven't quite returned to normal." 

According to Potter, "Flying over Thanksgiving could be an absolute nightmare of delays and cancellations. Over the last few months, we've seen airline after airline melt down, canceling hundreds or even thousands of flights over the course of just a few days." They had something of an excuse: "Airlines had to get much smaller to survive the travel downturn during the pandemic. But now travel is bouncing back, and airlines are stretched too thin to handle a surge in travelers — and no surge is bigger than Thanksgiving and the winter holidays," Potter says.

Ominously, he adds, "Warning signs are flashing: It could be an ugly week if you're getting on an airplane." Anyone who's spent hours in an airport with nothing but some trail mix from Hudson News knows that's reason enough to roast a bird with your besties. But avoiding hellish travel isn't the only motivation to be with friends this year. Some point to a process of re-evaluation that has happened over the last 20 months.

"Family celebrations always have the underlying feeling of obligation. Friendsgiving celebrations feel more genuine.”
Credit: InStyle

Bob, 38, who asked that his surname be withheld, went through a breakup mid-pandemic, and subsequently came out to his family. They didn't respond well.

"This is the first Thanksgiving I have been out of the closet," the Missouri resident says. "I was told when I came out that I shouldn't come to any more family events." The pain of this rejection is tempered by the fact that Bob is actually looking forward to being with friends whom he adores. While he always made it to family dinners in past years, he would also occasionally stop by Friendsgivings, marveling at the contrast in atmosphere. "I really loved the energy. Family celebrations always have the underlying feeling of obligation. Friendsgiving celebrations feel more genuine," he says. 

Bob's family does not make him feel welcome, and he says they don't demonstrate adequate concern about possible COVID-19 infection. They have not committed to wearing masks or taking other precautions during the pandemic. But Bob and his friends are all vaccinated, and their gathering will be small, but no less full of cheer; they've known each other for a decade and many have experienced similar family and relationship distress recently, drawing them even closer to one-another.

Bob isn't alone in his gratitude for getting to hang out with people he actually likes. Among the many ways in which the coronavirus pandemic has affected the United States, an upside many can point to is finding clarity around their own real needs, wants, and goals. People are leaving unfulfilling jobs in The Great Resignation, downsizing or upsizing their homes during the real estate craze, and speeding up the rate at which they get married or divorced. Is it any wonder that some of us have decided to eschew wasting yet another holiday with a racist cousin with the personality of a broken ashtray? When our very cool, interesting, and good-looking friends are literally right there?

This Is the Year of Friendsgivings
Credit: Getty Images

Jennifer Maher, 55, who divides her time between Indiana and Florida, celebrates Thanksgiving with friends every year, but for similar reason's to Bob's, she's especially glad to in 2021. Most of her biological relatives are gone, and she and her husband aren't close to his politically conservative family. When her husband suffered a health crisis, she knew she should call on the couple's friends for help instead of relying on relatives.

"Even if I had close family around, I'd still continue to do Friendsgiving," Maher says. "My friends are my chosen family."

Lilit Marcus, a travel producer at CNN Digital based in Hong Kong, brings an international perspective to the discussion. "[Life abroad] has made me really cherish Friendsgiving," she says. "Because it's a holiday about food and comfort rather than a religious observance, a wide variety of expats can really enjoy the holiday." She loves that instead of feeling like an obligatory ritual, an international Friendsgiving "becomes a fun way to bond when you're far from home."

From a professional viewpoint, Marcus echoes Potter's assumption that traveling for Thanksgiving this year will be a huge pain. Citing Covid testing and proof of vaccination requirements as an added burden, she says, "People do not want to spend a lot of time dealing with logistics for a short trip. If I have to spend two to three days organizing paperwork for a three-to-four-day trip, it's no longer worth it."

This doesn't mean everyone's grouchily sitting out important events. Marcus sees a trend toward prizing more quality time with the people we love, not less. "The trend I'm seeing is people stockpiling more of their PTO [paid time off] to spend it on one longer trip rather than a few short ones — for example, a big family visit over Christmas and New Year's rather than a Thanksgiving long weekend."

"I've become quite choosy in who I get out of my PJs for."
Credit: InStyle

Josh, who also asked that his last name be withheld, moved from Mississippi to Virginia in 2006 to get a fresh start after Hurricane Katrina ravaged his state. He and his wife won't be visiting their Mississippi family for Thanksgiving. 

"Last year, it was because of the pandemic," Josh says. "This year, we just don't want to be around our families." He and his wife "have had some revelations about just how strange of a world we had been reared in." He says seeing their families' reactions to the Trump administration and the pandemic have amplified Josh and his wife's shared feeling of disconnection from their community of origin.

Over and over, people interviewed for this piece mentioned a reprioritization of time and energy upon seeing how their families behaved in response to the ongoing global health crisis. And when it came time to give thanks? They chose others to be grateful for and with. Jennifer Maher puts it in colorful terms, saying, "Due to the pandemic, I have even less f*cks to give than normal regarding spending time with my husband's family … I've become quite choosy in who I get out of my PJs for."