The thought of navigating a season meant for celebration during the COVID-19 pandemic might leave you feeling pretty Scrooge-y. Here's how to make the most of it, while keeping safety in mind.

By Kirsten Nunez
November 20, 2020
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When the country shut down back in March, you likely thought 'Oh, a two-week quarantine? I've got this.' But as your spring, summer, and fall plans were eventually canceled, you likely realized that social distancing, mask-wearing, and state-wide restrictions were going to be a fact of life for much longer.

The past year has ushered in Zoom weddings and drive-by birthday parties. And now, with the end of 2020 (finally) around the corner, this holiday season promises to be unlike any other as many people opt to stay at home or drastically limit the size of their gatherings. This could have negative psychological impacts, especially for people "who are isolated due to relationship status, health issues, or strict social-distancing preferences," explains clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D.

Still, some people may welcome the change of pace. "For people with difficult family dynamics or trauma histories, COVID-19 will allow them to create boundaries around the holidays that they might have not felt empowered to do before," says Elizabeth Cush, M.A., L.C.P.C., therapist and founder of Progression Counseling.

Of more than 1,000 Americans surveyed by market research company Toluna, 34 percent plan to gather with immediate family, 24 percent plan to celebrate only with those they live with, and 14 percent still plan to partake in a large family gathering while trying to maintain physical distance from other guests. (Related: How to Beat Loneliness In the Time of Social Distancing)

And while you may be bummed to be sitting Christmas out this year, even those gatherings that are still happening will come with their own stressors. Not only is this a hostile election year, but disagreements within families on how to safely gather are also bound to cause conflict, says Cush.

If you're feeling more "bah humbug" than "joy to the world" about the 2020 holiday season and how it will impact your annual celebrations, know that you're not alone. Try focusing on making memories instead of focusing on what's different or missing. With this approach, you'll be able to spend your time and energy on the positive while looking forward, explains Denise Myers, M.S., national director of behavioral health services at Marathon Health.

Here's how to heed that advice and have a safe and happy holiday season.

How to Celebrate the Holidays Safely During COVID-19

Before making any hasty decisions, consult the guidelines on holiday celebrations during COVID from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the latest info on group gatherings and travel advisories.

If You're Traveling

A mid-September survey by Travelocity of more than 1,000 adults found that 60 percent of respondents don't plan to travel to visit family and friends for the holidays this year. What's more, Thanksgiving travel is expected to fall by at least 9.7 percent from 2019 — the biggest drop in a one-year span since 2008, according to a November Holiday Travel Forecast report from the American Automobile Association. The report also estimates that, compared to 2019, Thanksgiving air travel will decrease by 47.5 percent and car travel will decrease by 4.3 percent. (Related: What to Know About Air Travel During the Coronavirus Pandemic)

But if you're part of the group who still has holiday travel on their agenda, here's what you can do protect yourself and those around you:

  • Confirm infection rates: You may want to think twice before traveling to or from an area with high COVID-19 rates. To check case numbers by state, visit the CDC.
  • Check quarantine guidelines: Depending on your origin, you may need to self-quarantine at the end of your trip. Generally, these guidelines are voluntary but recommended to protect the local community.
  • Stay solo: Whether you're renting an Airbnb or exploring the great outdoors, try to limit social interactions with anyone outside of your household or quarantine pod.
  • Be flexible: Prepare for new or additional restrictions from local governments, lodging, or transportation companies. Recognize that you may have to adjust your plans if you start feeling sick or decide you feel uncomfortable traveling.
  • Follow standard COVID-19 precautions: It goes without saying but always bears reminding that you should wear a mask or fitted face-covering when out in public, including and especially while on public transportation. You should continue to practice social distancing and wash your hands frequently.

If You're Hosting Guests IRL

While many families may forgo large-scale celebrations this year, trading those for smaller gatherings still comes with its risks. Any get-together increases someone's risk of exposure, but especially when people from different households hang out in close quarters, indoors, and/or for long periods of time, according to the CDC. (Related: People Who Decorate for the Holidays Earlier Are Happier, According to a Psychologist)

If you opt to host an in-person gathering, consider these safety measures for hosting responsibly:

  • Limit your guest list: Your guest list should be based on how many people can fit in your home while staying six feet apart. Also, ask high-risk individuals to sit this one out.
  • Head outdoors: If possible, host your gathering outdoors — a bonfire or outdoor heater can help. If the weather doesn't permit this, the CDC recommends opening windows and using a fan to promote airflow while indoors.
  • Adjust your seating: Spread chairs out at least six feet apart when setting the table, and ask guests to wear masks when they're not eating, as they would at a restaurant.
  • Make it BYO. The CDC suggests asking guests to bring their own food, beverages, and utensils, which might sound a bit extreme when you're the host. So, if you prefer potluck-style, assign one person to prepare plates (with single-use utensils) while wearing gloves and a face mask.

How to Make the Most of Virtual Holiday Celebrations

Technology will no doubt play a major role in helping people tap into the holiday spirit this year. Luckily for anyone choosing to go the virtual route, Zoom recently announced that it will lift the typical 40-minute time limit for all free meetings on Thanksgiving day.

If you're looking for virtual holiday party ideas during COVID, you'll be happy to know that there are many ways to get festive from afar. Along with "Zoom meals" with relatives, you "can also share favorite recipes, hold a virtual baking contest, or [host] a virtual trivia session," suggests Myers. (Related: Whole Foods Is Offering a Thanksgiving Turkey Protection Plan to "Insure" Your Holiday Meal)

You can also make the day feel special by doing a joint hands-on activity. For example, send the same craft or cooking kit to each household (or have each family buy the same supplies), then make the project together virtually. "Shared experiences, especially fun ones, help people feel connected," explains Myers. And "even though the concept of 'being together' has changed due to COVID, you'll still get that feeling of togetherness if you're all doing and experiencing the same thing" — even if it's miles apart. Other ideas for communal activities include holiday caroling, scavenger hunts, a virtual watch party, or storytime for kids.

If you love the annual gift exchange between your friends, you can easily buy online and send gifts in advance for a virtual unboxing together. Consider opting for more practical items this year such as air purifiers and noise cancellation headphones or grocery store gift cards, cloth face masks, and hand sanitizers as stocking stuffers, says Tiara Rea-Palmer, head of retail at CouponFollow. "You'll also see more food or gift basket-type gifts on sale, as these can be incredibly meaningful for family members when you can't eat with them at the dinner table this year," adds Palmer.

If signing up for a Turkey Trot is more your style, have the whole fam run on their own and take videos to share with each other, suggests Myers.

No matter your game plan, remember that celebrating responsibly is the most thoughtful thing to do. "It's okay to be disappointed, [but] try to be open-minded and work with your loved ones to come up with alternatives," says Myers. You can also think of it this way: The current situation is the perfect chance to make this holiday season exceptionally unique and memorable, and maybe even start a few new creative traditions worth repeating in the future.

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