Disinvited from Thanksgiving? An etiquette expert shares how to deal

Erin Donnelly
·7-min read
Prefer to celebrate Thanksgiving solo? Here's the etiquette for retracting — or backing out of — an invitation. (Photo: Getty Images)
Prefer to celebrate Thanksgiving solo? Here's the etiquette for retracting — or backing out of — an invitation. (Photo: Getty Images)

Under normal circumstances, Tami, who lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two children, would be hosting a large Thanksgiving family gathering complete with turkey, ham, her mother’s famous cranberry sauce and non-stop football viewing. But with COVID-19 cases rising, and states restricting travel in response, having about 10 family members come in from New York and Florida “presented some issues,” she tells Yahoo Life.

Anxious to keep their 4-year-old in school and unwilling to engage in behavior that might result in illness or a quarantine, she and her husband decided to “retract” their offer to host, a decision that she admits left some relatives “shaking their heads in disbelief.”

“When it comes to politics, our family is half one side, and half the other,” says Tami, who will now be celebrating with just her husband, kids and the family dog. “So, it was an easy conversation for half of our family, who believe in social distancing, to cancel our favorite holiday. However, for the other side who doesn't necessarily believe in social distancing, it was a hard conversation. I think plenty of families are going through this, and it isn't easy to please everyone.”

As Thanksgiving 2020 approaches — and the window in which to quarantine, get precautionary tests or travel narrows — many are wrestling with how to gently disentangle themselves from invitations that, given the state of the coronavirus pandemic, seem ill-advised. Maybe a family member you’re expected to dine with is flouting COVID-19 restrictions and you’re uncomfortable. Maybe you’d just prefer to stay home for the greater good. Maybe an illness has forced the issue.

“We actually disinvited everyone this year,” Jim Jacobs of Pennsylvania tells Yahoo Life. “We were going to host, but with a 16-year-old who contracted COVID two weeks ago, and my 70-year-old parents [planning to come], we felt it just wasn't worth the perceived risk ... It's just a crappy year.”

And Daniel, who preferred to be identified by his first name only, tells Yahoo Life that he and his wife had to back out of inviting the parent of their child’s classmate to their outdoor Thanksgiving gathering after realizing too late that she was a “bit of a typical Karen who opposes the belief of wearing a mask for protection from the virus,” he says.

“We believe that allowing such a person to enter our home could only [expose us to] harm,” he explains.

It’s a sticky social situation, but one that can still be handled with grace, says etiquette expert Erika Preval of Charm Etiquette.

“This year will prove to be quite different when it comes to holidays and celebrations, however, the essential theme of etiquette remains the same: consideration,” she tells Yahoo Life. “It’s understandable if your holiday gathering will change this year. The essential thing is to make guests aware of that within enough time that they can also alter their plans. By now, they’ve had enough Zoom meetings and virtual gatherings to understand the restrictions of large social gatherings, but making friends and family aware of your plans should not be left to assumption.”

Turkey for one: Many Americans are keeping their gatherings small this holiday season. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)
Turkey for one: Many Americans are keeping their gatherings small this holiday season. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)

If you do choose to carry on your in-person hosting duties, but find yourself reconsidering an invitation to someone — perhaps they’re lax about COVID-19 restrictions, or you’ve decided you’d be more comfortable with a smaller group — Preval says you shouldn’t let guilt or awkwardness stop you from saying something. Ultimately, you’ve got to prioritize the group’s health over an individual’s social plans.

“As a host, it’s your responsibility to protect the safety of your guests,” Preval says. “So, as much as you’d arrange transportation for a guest who’s been overserved at an event, you’d do the same to ensure that your holiday guests remain healthy after attending your event. Retracting an invitation is very delicate. Be honest. Let the guest know that there are others with health concerns that cannot be exposed to the risks of the pandemic, and that you look forward to hosting them on a future date — of course, with your apologies for any inconvenience it may cause.”

As in Tami’s case, a disinvited guest may take offense, or see your decision as an overreaction. Preval says you can stand your ground without turning the matter into a debate by coming from a place of kindness and caution.

“There’s never a need to apologize for the health or safety of your family, but sometimes people will make you feel as though you need to,” she says. “Certainly, I wouldn’t want you to start quoting numbers of cases from the morning news, however, with love in your heart, kindly let them know that there’s so much information and perhaps misinformation out there that you’d prefer not to take any risks for now.”

If you’re a guest whose invite has been pulled, it’s understandable to feel let down. But Preval says it’s important to remember that these are extraordinary circumstances, and there’s no reason to put pressure on a host acting out of caution and a sense of responsibility.

“The best way to handle not being included in this year’s plan is with grace and understanding,” Preval advises. “Thank your host for making you aware of the changes and let them know that you look forward to seeing them when things are a bit more normal. Do not make them feel guilty about their decision — especially due to a circumstance that’s beyond their control.”

And know that you’re not alone; social media is currently rife with folks both commiserating over and celebrating being excluded from this year’s turkey dinner.

It may be that you are a guest who has decided to disinvite yourself, whether it’s because of travel restrictions or a nagging sense that it’s too risky to be around others. Either way, Preval says the best approach is to “always be honest” about your pandemic concerns.

“As soon as possible, contact the host and let them know of your change of plans,” she adds. “Offer to send over the item you were to bring via delivery or caterer. Send floral arrangements a day ahead, as well.”

Pulling out of the event might actually save your host from making a tough call.

“Due to Gov. Cuomo's announcement last week that private gatherings are now limited to 10 people, my girlfriend and I made the decision to disinvite ourselves from Thanksgiving to make it easier for the host,” New Yorker Bryan Towey tells Yahoo Life. “Given that this Thanksgiving was going to include over 30 people, we figured the host would be in a pretty tough position deciding who could and couldn't still attend. The host ended up being incredibly grateful for our decision and thanked us for making the process easier for her. Even though it would have been great to see everyone for Thanksgiving this year, it is important to put safety first.”

With luck, the festivities will be back to normal next year. Until then, Preval recommends drawing inspiration from Thanksgiving’s message of gratitude.

“Be considerate,” she says. “No one wants to be the pandemic police, so, for the amount of time you’re a guest or host, please be kind to one another and thankful for your time together.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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