Makin’ a List
You think you’ve got problems. How would you like to be trying to sell 15-pound Thanksgiving turkeys when many people are confined to having six or fewer guests at the holiday dinner table because of the pandemic?
This year’s holidays are shaping up to be the mother of all “Oh (Rein)deer! What a year!” projects.
Moms who long ago reached the end of their tinsel garlands from juggling home schooling and remote work are facing the season with no help in the kitchen from their moms and aunts. Grandparents have had it with staying away from their grandkids. Even Santa is wearing a mask and wondering if he should stay home this year.
Health experts have advised us for months, and reiterated strongly as the number of cases has surged this fall, that the only low risk holiday strategy is to stay home and celebrate with members of our own household in person and with others remotely. Any other strategy, regardless of precautions, introduces moderate to high risk to ourselves and our precious family members.
Memorial Day get-togethers were partly blamed for an increase in COVID-19 cases early in the summer. Weddings, parties and other family events have turned into many super spreader events. Hospital workers say the most common scenario is that families blow off warnings to hold a gathering and then their grandparent contracts the virus at a family dinner and ends up in the hospital on a ventilator.
Travel and parties even with social distancing, masks and outdoor activities all carry substantially higher risks than stay-at-home, single-household celebrations. It’s clear that this is the most responsible option and a no brainer, so how can we pull it off and still have the holidays?
Before we all put on Grinch grimaces, let's not get hung up on lamenting that this year is not the same as what we are used to. Plenty of holidays have been different and challenging over the years. Our family has had three moves, surgeries, babies born, illnesses and deaths during the holiday season as well as years when family members were not together during the holidays because of military assignments in war zones. We're not unusual. Many families have to be flexible every year because they have to work during the holidays. Many military and diplomatic families do holidays via Zoom regularly because family members are away defending their country. Health care workers, police, public works employees, journalists, and others have to work holidays. They manage to work around it and still enjoy the holiday. If they can make this sacrifice regularly in the public interest, we can all do it for one year to help control a deadly pandemic.
COVID Christmas planning begins with drawing a line in the sand – how much risk are we personally willing to assume to enjoy holiday festivities together? If we’re going to draw a line, we might as well do so in festive colors. This calls for whipping out the red and green pens and some paper, making a list and checking it twice.
Let's make two columns. On the left, write in red pen "Red = Stop, not this year,” and on the right in green pen, "Green = Go, we can do this in spite of COVID.”
Red – Stop, Not This Year
Divide the left column into three parts - Safety, Spending and Stress. This year’s holidays will require that we take these three S’s into unprecedented territory.
Safety - We have a responsibility to ourselves, our friends and family and overwhelmed health care workers to stay home, social distance and wear masks when we have to go out and avoid gatherings with people outside our household.
Spending - The economic downturn means that this year’s holidays will have to be more modest for many people than most years’.
Stress - If you’re like most of us, you've experienced major stress this year so it’s important that the holidays don’t add to that.
So next, jot down under each of these headings what you need to avoid. Here's a sample:
That was easy.
Green – Go, We Can Do This in Spite of COVID
This is harder. How can we reinvent the holidays to enjoy them without risking our families' safety?
Start by focusing on the spirit of the holiday rather than on specific activities. Write down what you want to focus on.
Then divide your list in to Thanksgiving, Christmas prep and Christmas headings. Under them, put down all of the activities you can safely do and want to do. If you’re like most people, it turns out that there are lots of traditions you can still enjoy. Here's an example:
Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Dinners
Scale dinner down depending on the number of people in your household. If you don’t have enough people to warrant a turkey, swap it for a chicken. Many people like chicken better anyway. Or make a small turkey or turkey breast and repurpose it for leftovers. Turkey doesn’t have to be strictly traditional anyway. We barbecue our Thanksgiving turkey because we like the taste. I’ve seen Thanksgiving turkey cooked Chinese style like Peking duck. It was delicious. This year is a great time to try something different, since you won’t have Aunt Cheryl in your kitchen playing family tradition cop. Cook what you like and what fits your family’s circumstances.
If you enjoy having the meal with family members that won’t be with you this year, get together for your meal on Zoom. Set up a large monitor at one end of the table so you can see everyone else who is joining the dinner remotely.
If you’re OCD about eating the same thing as your family members, share recipes and cook together via Zoom. You also can cook different dishes and then exchange dishes in food storage containers among different households, but this can place you at higher risk.
For local family members who don’t cook, place a plate of dinner and some pie on their porch for them and then eat together with them on Zoom. You can arrange to have dinner delivered to people who are far away if necessary.
This year has been stressful. Rather than making everything from scratch, it could be a good year to make a couple of favorite traditional recipes and then buy rolls or a pie or two. If you have the means and feel a strong need to relax instead of cook, order the meal from a local restaurant or grocery store. It’s a great way to support small businesses that are struggling. Skip ironing the antique tablecloth and polishing your great grandmother's silver, and keep your table simple and pretty with nice paper napkins, inexpensive flowers and candles.
Without guests to pass judgement on the meal, this also is a great time to enlist kids in helping.
Give kids some pie crust, a rolling pin and cookie cutters and let them go at it decorating the tops of the pies. If they don’t turn out perfect, who cares?
Macy’s Thanksgiving parade will be a television-only event this year that will air on NBC and Telemundo on Thanksgiving Day from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. in all time zones. If your family members’ thing is watching football, there will be several NFL games. Gather in your respective family rooms and watch a game while cheering together via Zoom.
If you enjoy playing games together in the evening, you can always play charades and a trivia game on Zoom. To improve the viewing experience, use your television screen as a monitor or use a laptop or tablet instead of a smartphone.
Send Thanksgiving notes, via email or snail mail, to family members in other households expressing your love to them. Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets are a great treat that is safe to send and that helps support businesses.
If the weather is nice, is it safe to eat outside in the backyard, with at least six feet of distance between members of different households? Many baby and bridal showers and birthday parties have been held this way since the pandemic began and it is believed to be lower risk than meeting indoors. However, it’s still much higher risk than gathering on Zoom. Many health experts and local governments are asking people to limit gatherings to their own households instead.
I’ve been to some of these outdoor gatherings, and they have drawbacks – you can’t wear a mask while eating, it’s difficult to keep guests from all touching serving utensils that could transmit the virus and it’s difficult to impossible to keep children socially distanced. People remove their masks to eat but continue talking, often getting less cautious as the event wears on. For hosts, it's like herding cats to get people to physically distance when the point of the event is for them to socialize. Anyone with a hearing problem finds it impossible to socially distance. It's wiser to skip this kind of gathering.
Talking to Your Family About Not Gathering
Health experts are discouraging holiday travel as it’s a prime way to spread COVID between households and from region to region. This can be a hard conversation to have with family members, but it will go much better if you tell them rather than ask them what you are going to do and then propose alternative activities so they will know you still want to be in touch with them.
Here are some suggestions:
Spend an evening with your loved ones on a video platform planning post-pandemic travel. Many people postpone visiting family or traveling until after the holidays anyway because the cost is typically lower then. With a vaccine on the horizon next year, planning a post-vaccination family reunion can help cheer everyone up about being apart for the holidays.
The same applies to people who want to visit you for the holidays. Have a realistic conversation about your fear that they or you could contract COVID if they come to see you now, and then turn to plans to get together for a celebration once you’ve all been vaccinated for COVID.
We recently spent two weeks under quarantine when our daughter contracted COVID from a doctor at the clinic at which she works. She had a very mild case and the rest of us tested negative, but the three-four day wait to get everyone’s test results back was excruciating as we all wondered if any of us were going to get sick. It drove home to me that no holiday celebration is worth risking your loved ones’ health for. Your primary responsibility and priority this year is to protect your loved ones. Let your relatives and friends know that you feel bad about skipping gathering with them, but you’ll be in touch remotely and you can’t wait to get together when the pandemic is over.
Don’t bother arguing with family members who favor a more relaxed approach to the pandemic. Just simply tell them that you love them, you wish you could be with them and can’t wait until you can, but this is what your household is going to do. It’s a waste to argue with family members over an international calamity that doesn’t have any up sides and that probably will subside when vaccines become available anyway. Instead plan safe and fun ways to shore up relationships so they will last far beyond arguments over masks.
Here’s where your traditions can shine. Decorating your house for the holidays is essentially risk free, as long as you don’t stress out over it or fall off the roof while stringing lights, so do as much or as little as you want.
Culling and Honing Traditions
This is a good time to lay aside traditions that just feel like an obligation or that you dislike. Concentrate on rituals that are meaningful to you. Meet with family and friends on Zoom for a religious experience such as praying, singing carols, sharing what you are grateful for, or reading the Biblical Christmas story if those are important to you. Toast each other afterwards with hot chocolate and cookies.
Have children help with decorating, spend time with Grandma on Zoom and help wrap gifts. Concentrate on having fun, not perfect results.
Get everyone outside for bicycle rides, walks and outdoor games on holidays. If you have a fire pit, build a fire and sit around it in warm clothing and sing carols. When the fire burns down, place potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil in the coals to cook for a later meal. Despite the pandemic, you can safely go sledding or skating on a lake or pond or toss a football around in the yard.
Shop thoughtfully on-line
Think carefully about what your family members need or want to move their lives forward and select gifts thoughtfully, shopping less but more wisely.
Give them experiences rather than things. Mothers especially need help with ways to keep their children occupied and learning at home. Many adults have more time for hobbies or reading now and would love a hobby gift card, materials, tools or a new book on a topic they are interested in. Contributions to video service fees, magazine subscriptions, food or hobby subscriptions, apps, music services or audio book subscriptions are often appreciated. On-line classes in topics people are interested in or a contribution to a college education fund are other great gifts. If you have family members who are out of work, find out what they are doing without and supply it. If you have disabled family members or friends and you have the means to supply them with helpful technology such as a tablet, you will be the most popular gift giver in your family.
Give a gift that grows – a potted herb garden or an indoor palm tree.
Gift giving should be done cautiously to avoid spreading the virus. It might be wise to order gifts and have them sent to friends, work colleagues and neighbors this year. If you can’t, wear a mask while preparing food for people who aren’t in your household, wipe off containers after filling them, and wear gloves when you handle and deliver them. Avoid close contact with recipients while doing so.
Minimalism has been a growing trend for years. This year, move it forward with a less frenzied and more thoughtful holiday season that gives you more time to relax, laugh and unwind together. It’s a good year to prioritize rest and relaxation.
Throwing a Holiday Party
As far as throwing a party, you’re not doing anyone a favor unless you can do it remotely, do a drive-by party or organize a Christmas car caravan to see Christmas lights.
Here are some ideas for a remote party:
Send everyone an email invitation to a Zoom party. Say on the invitation that you are celebrating remotely this year, and want to include them.
Invite everyone to dress up in holiday finery, Christmas pajamas or a Christmas sweater.
Take screenshots of everyone on Zoom. This could be one of the most memorable keepsakes of 2020 for your family.
If someone in your family owns a Santa suit, ask them to don it and talk to children individually over Zoom about their Christmas wish list.
Have participants prepare with graham crackers, a container of icing and some candies, and then get together on Zoom and make Christmas “gingerbread” houses together.
When People Need to Come Home
Among the most difficult situations is college students returning home for the holidays, which introduces added risk for everyone. Students should get tested before heading home for the holidays and shouldn’t travel if they test positive. Everyone involved should be meticulous about wearing masks, washing hands and socially distancing in the weeks before students come home. They should not be in personal contact with vulnerable family members while home. If possible, they should stay in a room by themselves and everyone in the family should be careful about personal hygiene. Let people know in advance that you are skipping high risk behavior such as hugs and kisses.
No one who has symptoms of COVID-19, has been exposed to someone with it, is still waiting for test results or is at increased risk of severe COVID-19 because they are older or have underlying medical conditions should visit another household.
Another vulnerable population is people with mental health issues. It’s crucial that they are supported during the holiday, and that can require a risk-benefit balance plus being careful about social distancing and hygiene if you do allow them to visit your household. If you must have anyone who doesn’t live in your household staying with you, skip caroling. I know, this is an ouch, but eating, drinking and singing together in a cozy setting are among the highest-risk scenarios. Putting on some Christmas music to listen to is the most charitable way to go.
The best way you can teach children how to handle the holidays during a pandemic is by example, but there are a number of children’s books on the topic. Merry Covid Christmas 2020 Coloring book, illustrated by Kenn Lupoli ; A Coronavirus Christmas: The Spirit of Christmas Will Always Shine Through, by Shannon Jett; and A Very Corona Christmas: Santa Stayed Home, by Kelley Donner are among them.
Make a plan for what you will do if someone in your household gets sick with COVID during the holidays. Make sure you have somewhere in your home where they can be isolated while being cared for.
Attending holiday gatherings
Before you risk going to a holiday gathering, consider what will happen if you are exposed to COVID-19 at it. Even if you don’t get sick, you will have to get tested. You will have to stay home and perhaps quarantine from other family members who didn’t attend the event for 14 days. During this time, you will need to make sure you have food and other needed supplies on hand and can arrange your work properly. You will have to watch for fever, cough, shortness of breath or other symptoms of the virus. You may inflict the same inconvenience and stress on family members.
This is the best case scenario. If you get sick, the consequences could range from a couple of weeks of misery to severe illness that requires hospitalization on your part or that of your family members or friends. Is attending a party worth it?
A party-free holiday season doesn’t have to be all bad. Many people dread holiday parties and dinners at which they are pressured to find someone to marry, have another grandchild, get a better job, go into the family business, eat or drink too much or change their political or religious views. Take a break from that pressure and enjoy the blessings you have instead. A pared-down Christmas means more time to sit by the fireplace reading the original Christmas story or the Christmas Carol and listening to Christmas music.
Dealing with a sense of loss
Many people are going to feel an unavoidable sense of loss this Christmas, but the risks of getting together and then losing a family member or several to COVID-19 as a result are too great to ignore. It is a matter of balancing losses – one day that could expose you and loved ones to a deadly disease vs. years with them long after the pandemic has passed. Happy Holidays should include many holidays to come, not just this year’s.
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