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Celebrating the Holidays in a Tent


To celebrate Thanksgiving with his family this year while still maintaining social distance, Thomas Zuniga pitched a tent on the front lawn of his parents’ home in northeast Georgia. He called it Tentsgiving.

As coronavirus cases continue to climb nationwide, Americans are rethinking their holiday traditions. For those where a Zoom holiday simply won’t suffice, some are opting to pitch a tent in the yards of loved ones to create some face-to-face festivities, but with appropriate social distancing.

After Mr. Zuniga, an Asheville, N.C.-based digital content producer, was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder this spring, he took extra care to follow public health guidelines. He told his parents he didn’t feel comfortable sharing indoor space over the holidays with his younger siblings, their partners, and their children, let alone possibly putting his father, who has cancer, at even more risk. Already an experienced camper, Mr. Zuniga, 33, decided he would keep his distance while reconnecting with family by turning the yard into a makeshift campground.

Thanksgiving dinner was prepared by Mr. Zuniga’s parents and was served outside on the porch for the party of nine. Mr. Zuniga dined at his own table separate from the main group.

“I joked I was at the kids’ table,” he said, “even though it was just me and I’m a 33-year-old-man.”

Despite the onslaught of warnings from public health officials urging against holiday travel, many Americans were willing to take the risk to visit loved ones for Thanksgiving and will likely do so for Christmas as well. Nearly one million travelers passed through airport security the week before and the weekend following Thanksgiving, according to Transportation Security Administration data, the highest volume since mid-March. Two in five Americans said they would likely attend a gathering this holiday season with more than 10 people who live outside their household, according to a survey from the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Thanksgiving offered a prime opportunity to reward prior good behavior throughout the pandemic with socially distanced visiting. Rosalin Siv, a baker and founder of online New York boutique bakery The Evercake, could sense her mother was disappointed when she initially said her family wouldn’t be visiting Annandale, Va. for Thanksgiving. Ms. Siv’s mother, who lives alone, had closely adhered to social distancing measures, avoiding all in-person socializing and unnecessary errands.

As a pat on the back for her mother’s efforts, Ms. Siv, 39, her husband, and their 3-year-old son made the four-hour drive from Manhattan for the holiday. Although the family dined inside Ms. Siv’s mother’s home — with Ms. Siv and her family on one side of the dining room and her mother on the other — they spent Thanksgiving night outside in an Airstream trailer on loan from Ms. Siv’s sister’s boyfriend.

“Since we were so close to my mom’s house, she would pop in any time. She would say ‘Here’s some extra blankets,’” Ms. Siv said.

Some families used yard camping as a means of hosting large celebrations that otherwise wouldn’t be permitted under indoor gathering restrictions. Andrew Cunningham, the Detroit-based founder of the pest-control resource DailyPest, 34, his wife, and two daughters were four of nearly 20 guests who camped in his parents’ backyard in Knoxville, Tenn. Each of the six families in attendance received individual dinner portions, prepared by Mr. Cunningham’s parents. The entire holiday was spent outside — with seven tents and a pop-up camper in all — save for masked trips indoors to the bathroom.

The country’s upward trajectory of Covid-19 cases and a medical system in crisis was enough though to deter some people who had previously camped in backyards. Although she’d camped in her aunt’s front yard in Springfield, Mo., over Labor Day Weekend, Blue McNiel, a jewelry merchandiser, stayed home in Kansas City for Thanksgiving, opting to hike with a friend instead of dining with family, who planned to have their meal outside, Ms. McNiel, 33, said.

“To me, the most generous gift I can give to anyone is to not travel unnecessarily to see them,” she said.

Michael James Nuells, too, out of an abundance of caution, bucked tradition and avoided traveling to his hometown Victoria, Texas, to visit family for Thanksgiving. When friends who live nearby suggested celebrating the holiday over Zoom, Mr. Nuells, a special events manager in Las Vegas, proposed a more intimate affair: What if he camped in the yard of their new home?

On Thanksgiving eve, Mr. Nuells pitched a tent in the front yard while another friend set up camp out back, much to the delight of onlooking neighbors, he said. From his tent, Mr. Nuells, 32, chatted on the phone with his hosts as they looked on from their front window.

“It reminded me of being like a little kid,” he said. “You always think of the telephone game: You put one can to your ear and hopefully your neighbor next door, your friend in the window, can hear you and obviously you can’t.”

Outdoors felt more like indoors when the hosts’ driveway was fashioned into a makeshift dining hall, with multiple tables erected for food and for each party to dine. Mr. Nuells’ hosts even pulled their television close to the front window so their guests could watch football from the lawn. The backyard was equipped with a portable toilet and sink.

Given the backdrop of this tumultuous year, not celebrating the holidays just felt wrong, Mr. Nuells said. When plans and expectations must constantly be rejiggered, spending a night in a tent on a friends’ lawn was an opportunity to make new, positive memories. He anticipates yard camping again for Christmas and beyond.

“I can deal with a little heat, I can deal with a little cool, I can deal with a little sweat,” he said. “There are much bigger issues going on in this world. I’m happy to be alive, enjoy the company and have friends present and make the most of the situation.”

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