This holiday season will be unlike any other, with COVID-19 disrupting our family traditions and gatherings. But different doesn’t have to mean depressing. With a little creativity — and some expert tips on how to troubleshoot common challenges — you can still enjoy a happy, healthy holiday season with the people you love.
Q: I’ve decided to travel to see family. How can I do it safely?
First, the rough news: The CDC says that all methods of travel increase your risk of getting COVID-19 — especially if you’re in a crowded area or spending time in enclosed spaces. Before you commit to the trip, consider several questions: What are the COVID-19 numbers at your destination? Does the area you’re going to require quarantine for incoming travelers? Are you (or the people you’re visiting) immunocompromised or older?
If your heart is set on in-person celebrations, there are steps you can take to lessen your risk of exposure: Wear a mask, try to stay at least six feet away from other people, avoid touching surfaces, and resist the temptation to strike up conversations with fellow passengers.
If you’re traveling by plane, wear a mask, social distance when you can, and wash your hands often. Plus, keep the overhead air nozzle on and pointed at you –– that vent brings in a mix of fresh and filtered air and may help minimize the circulation of airborne respiratory droplets near you. It’s probably also a good idea to skip the airplane snacks, as eating requires you to remove your mask. If you choose to drive, you’ll still have to be mindful to wear a mask and wash your hands when stopping for gas, food, or bathroom breaks.
Q: Celebrating holidays by video sounds like a bummer. Help?
Video chatting can be awkward and dull — but there are ways to make it less so (even downright festive!). The trick is to give the gathering some structure, says Courtney Ajinça, owner of Courtney Ajinça Events, an event planning company in Charlotte, NC. Instead of simply relying on small talk (which can feel inorganic over video), plan a fun game, like I spy or charades. You can also try a virtual gaming platform such as Jackbox or Codenames. Or, consider a virtual cooking party, with family and friends all following the same recipe or baking their favorite cookies and then swapping treats by mail. A shared activity gives the call a sense of purpose — and can help the conversation flow.
If your loved ones live nearby, you can even do what Ajinça calls a “drive-by celebration.” Drop baked goods, DIY decorations or holiday cards off in person (being mindful to wear a mask and practice social distancing). Though brief, that moment of seeing each other IRL can help fan your warm-and-fuzzy feelings.
Q: We love traditional holiday dishes. But how do we scale down the feast to feed only our immediate family?
Cooking a 20-pound bird may not make sense this year. No matter –– you can still serve up familiar, comforting holiday flavors for a party of four or fewer, says Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, registered dietitian and culinary nutrition expert. Rather than a turkey, try swapping for smaller Cornish hens, she says, or a juicy pork loin with rosemary. Maybe the mountain of mashed potatoes, gets replaced with twice-baked potatoes instead — or, you can simply halve many recipes. (Related: 9 Genius Takes on Holiday Dishes, Whether You’re Cooking for 2 or 12)
Of course, if cooking is nearly as vital to your holiday celebration as eating, go ahead and cook the full-on feast. You can always freeze leftovers, says Williams. Sliced turkey and ham freeze well, as do dense dishes like green bean casserole and stuffing. Just skip anything dairy-centric, Williams says, like cheddar soup, lemon meringue pie, or whipped cream.
Another tip to make a less-crowded table still feel special: Go all out with decorations, says Ajinça. Dust off the fancy dishware, light the holiday candles, and have the kids make paper snowflakes or hand-traced turkeys. A regular old Thursday night dinner, this is not.
Q: Between missing our family and consoling our disappointed kids, my partner and I are more stressed than ever. How can we lower stress as a family?
Even in normal times, the holiday season can be stressful. People often have high expectations about “what families are supposed to do, and what should happen,” says Mary Alvord, PhD, psychologist and co-author of Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens. When reality doesn’t match up, it’s frustrating and disappointing. This year, “there’s also the added stress of family losses, financial stress, and not being able to physically get together,” Alvord adds.
Don’t ignore the obvious. It’s important to acknowledge your own disappointment and grief. Doing so can also help your kids come to terms with what the holidays will be this year.
“Parents want to alleviate their children’s tougher emotions; that makes the parents feel better,” says Leslie Connor, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Delaware. “But to help a child feel better is to help them feel known and understood.”
Try to set clear, realistic expectations about what the holidays will look like this year — focusing most on the things you can control, Alvord says. Will you all stay in your pajamas till noon and feast on pancakes? Will there be presents? A movie marathon? An extended-family Zoom call? Knowing the schedule can help build kids’ anticipation and excitement.
Flex your creativity to connect with loved ones your family might be missing. Maybe that means watching a holiday-themed movie while sipping hot cocoa with their cousins over the computer. (Browser extensions like Netflix Party allow folks in different places to watch movies and shows together in real time.) Or maybe that means making homemade holiday cards for their friends at school and dropping them in the mail. Leaning in to what you can do as a family helps shift the focus from what you can’t.
Q: I have a smaller holiday budget this year. How can I get past the guilt?
COVID has put a financial strain on many families this year, so first know that you’re not alone. And while it’s natural to want to lavish your loved ones with presents, try to keep in mind that the intention behind those gifts is connection and love.
You can express your emotions without emptying your wallet. Consider sending a letter to a close friend or family member telling them how much they mean to you. Gift a DIY present, like baked goods or a curated music playlist. Your best friend has always admired your guitar-playing or hair-braiding? Offer some lessons. Or give the gift of time by offering to baby-sit while she catches some R&R.
Simple may actually be smart this year — even for those who could afford big-ticket items, says Connor. “It’s one thing to make the best of this holiday season. It’s another to try and compensate with more gifts this year,” she says. Life will continue to have its ups and downs, and we should all try to cultivate a sense of resiliency and gratitude. If we overdo it on the gifts this year, we’re showing our kids that big letdowns can somehow be balanced out by consumerism. And that’s not a great lesson to give.
You can also skip the physical gifts entirely and donate to a charity in your friend’s name. Choose one that resonates with you, your family, or the recipient. Need ideas? Think about picking a COVID-19 frontline worker fund, or a local organization that helps the homeless. To vet your choice, check out Charity Navigator or GuideStar, online clearinghouses that track how nonprofits spend their money.
“It is so healing to move beyond ourselves and to think about others,” Connor says. After all, isn’t that what the holidays are all about?
Monique Brouillette contributed to this story.
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