How To Have A Meaningful Holiday Season When You Can’t Gather In Person

Be Creative And Come Up With New Traditions — And Do Something Kind For Loved Ones, Psychologist Says

thanksgiving, covid-19, coronavirus
Volunteers prepare individual Thanksgiving meals for seniors in Hawthorne, N.J., on Nov. 3, 2020. With a fall surge of coronavirus infections gripping the U.S., many Americans are forgoing tradition and getting creative with celebrations. Kathy Young/AP Photo

As COVID-19 cases surge across Wisconsin, holidays this year are going to look different.

Skipping those beloved traditions and not celebrating with family members and loved ones adds stress to what has already been a difficult year, said Shilagh Mirgain, a distinguished psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.

“When we think of the holidays, for many people, they’re the most joy-filled moments with family, good food, a lot of laughter,” she said. “But we are entering some of the hardest days of the pandemic … so we’re really having to create new plans for the holidays.”

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With these changes, the risk of feeling isolated, lonely, depressed and anxious is going to be higher this year, Mirgain said. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still have a positive, and meaningful, holiday season.

Mirgain shared some helpful suggestions to enjoy this unique season.

Create A Plan For The Holidays Early

It’s really important to plan ahead for how you can fill that gap when your loved ones aren’t there, she said. But don’t leave family members out of the conversation; get together over Zoom or the phone to brainstorm alternative ideas for celebrating the season.

Maybe that means a virtual get together, a socially distanced holiday walk or gathering by an outdoor fire, if the weather cooperates. Have some fun with the planning and think outside the box.

We want to use innovation and creativity to make this holiday season still enjoyable and fun to remember, that’s for sure,” she said.

Be Prepared For Potential Pushback

If someone resists or makes you feel guilty, Mirgain said to be assertive. It can be helpful to have a script in mind if you think it’s a situation you may run into.

You don’t have to justify your decision, and Mirgain recommends not getting into a debate over the science or your rationale. Instead, recognize the other person’s feelings and experiences. Then keep the conversation simple.

“(For example) ‘Unfortunately, we’re just going to have to stay home this year … I have to do what’s right for my family, so I’m going to have to pass, but let’s come up with alternatives. And, man, I’m going to really look forward to next year when we can see each other, and that’s going to be a grand celebration,’” she said.

Get Creative — Come Up With Fun Alternatives, And Maybe Start Some New Traditions

One family Mirgain knows is planning to do a virtual holiday scavenger hunt, with each family member taking photos of themselves doing it. Another is doing a virtual ugly sweater competition.

Or maybe you could dig into your family history — ask family members questions about their lives, and have them write down their answers or share them virtually. You could also find some old family photos and reminisce over old memories.

“The real point here is to create joy,” Mirgain said. “I encourage people to be creative this way.”

Look Outside Yourself

Allow yourself to have feelings of disappointment or sadness without judgement, Mirgain said, but then look outside yourself.

“When we kind of get stuck in the muck, we tend to go really internally and in our head in kind of that doom-and-gloom thinking,” she said. “One of the best ways to snap out of that is to do something for somebody else.”

Cook a meal or a treat for family members or friends and leave them on their doorsteps, make ornaments, write a note saying how thankful you are for them — whatever comes to mind and will bring a smile to a loved one’s face.

“That sense of gratitude and appreciation that we can extend to others can really help stabilize our mood and really make some meaning during these challenging times this holiday season,” Mirgain said.