Editor’s Note: This article was updated Nov. 29, 2021. We recognize that the circumstances surrounding the holidays this year are different than those of 2020. We hope these ideas help families enjoy the holidays at their own comfort levels.
For the past seven years, Matt Hall has driven with his two young daughters to visit their grandmother in San Jose. They would stay at a hotel, go ice skating, see “The Nutcracker” in San Francisco, and go to a local Christmas in the Park festival with rides, a ferris wheel and lots of hot chocolate.
“We made it into our yearly tradition, and the kids loved it and I loved it,” Hall said.
But this year, due to COVID-19, the family decided not to go. As soon as the decision was made, Hall said his younger daughter, Ella, jumped into action and started coming up with ideas for different ways to connect with her grandmother.
“She said, ‘maybe can Facetime every day and go do something over Facetime, or do gingerbread houses or make cookies using Facetime,’” Hall said. “She immediately went to, ‘what’s the best we can do?’”
As COVID-19 infections (and variants) continue popping up across the country, a lot of families are going to be looking for creativity and ingenuity like Ella showed.
“We are social animals, we need human connection to tide us through good and bad times, however this is not a normal time,” said Dr. Adit Shah, an assistant professor of infectious disease at the Mayo Clinic.
Still, the holidays don’t have to be canceled completely and connection with extended family doesn’t have to be cut off. There are lots of options for connecting with family in different ways than the usual indoor gathering around the holiday dinner table.
Connect in Person Safely
In addition to getting vaccinated, Shah said there are ways to gather with extended family or friends safely:
Everyone get tested and quarantine themselves for five to seven days. “If someone is going to a gathering and has had a negative test in the last five to seven days and haven’t had any new exposures, then the chances that you’re carrying an infection are extremely low,” Shah said. “No test can rule it out definitely, but this test is really good.”
He cautioned the tests should be nasal swab tests, not rapid tests, which are less accurate.
Gather outdoors with social distancing and masks. Shah said it’s fairly low risk to get together with people as long as you’re outdoors and wearing masks. This can be problematic if you live in a cold climate, and if people want to eat, but he said there are ways around that.
“I’ve seen people open up their garage door and have a small gathering in the garage, because that permits ventilation of air,” he said. “You need to spread out tables and chairs, have social distancing, hand sanitizers, clean surfaces, but as long as everyone is wearing a mask and then pulls down their mask to eat, it’s fairly safe.”
Meet with family outdoors during the day and then take it to Zoom for dinner. If it’s too cold or too logistically challenging to host an outdoor dinner, try an in-person gathering during the day and then send everyone home to eat and talk over Zoom, said Dr. Carolyn Boulos, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.
“You can wear masks and do something outside like go on a walk, and doing that ahead of the time helps people to connect and before they get on Zoom after as a continuation,” she said. “Being able to see someone at a distance helps create that warm feeling, even if you have to split up later to do Zoom.”
Make Video Calls More Fun and Interesting
If distance prevents getting together with family or friends, or if you decide the only safe way to gather is virtually, there are plenty of ways to make an online gathering fun, Boulos said. It may require more planning and creativity than just sending out the Zoom invite, but it pays off.
Help older people get set up with the technology. “When we look at including people that are older, we want to make sure they have the capacity to get together in some way,” Boulos said. “That means having people be able to get onto Zoom, making sure their computer is up to date, helping them to connect before the holidays start happening.”
She also said to make sure to check audio levels and help older relatives use earphones if they can’t hear properly.
Plan out games to play or activities to do. Boulos said video calls go better when there’s an activity everyone can participate in. She suggests using an online trivia game to get people involved, or helping people play a board game together, either over the computer or with physical games that each family has at home.
Each household could also cook the same recipe at the same time, with an older relative leading the cooking like on a cooking show, she said.
Use photos as memory prompts. “It seems like when people get together now over Zoom, we’re all doing so little that we don’t have that many interesting things to talk about,” Boulos said. “So it’s important to draw on the past, memories that give us some connection to talk about.”
She suggests pulling out some old photos ahead of time and showing them on screen to the group as a memory prompt, similar to the way that Facebook shows photos from years earlier.
“Grandparents don’t know what’s going on in the lives of teens, and teens don’t know what grandparents have done, so when you bring out pictures, that leads to more memories and sharing,” she said.
Involve kids with a play or family dance party. The best way to involve kids in a family video call is to do something active, and ask for the kids’ input, said Dr. Lisa Damour, a psychologist, author of the bestsellers “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood” and “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls,” and cohost of the podcast “Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting.”
“So you can say, ‘do you want to put together a Thanksgiving play and have all the relatives get on Zoom and watch you do it?” she said. “Or, ‘do you want to have a family dance party, or a Zoom call where we talk about what we’re thankful for this year.’”
Letting kids give their input helps them feel more invested in the activity, and getting up and moving around will keep them more engaged, she said.
Use Gifts or Crafts to Connect
Boulos also suggested increasing connection by sending physical items in the mail before the Zoom calls start.
“Getting something in the mail, sending flowers, just receiving something even if you can’t see the person themselves, that’s very meaningful,” she said. “It’s so easy to shoot off an email, but there is something different in receiving something physical in the mail.”
Send letters or recipes with ingredients. Boulos suggested mailing letters to family members, or shipping everyone a recipe with the same ingredients so they can cook it together and share in the experience.
“Since we can’t be in the same room, we can do a recipe by Zoom, and that makes it feel like you’re doing it together,” she said.
Send gifts to open together on Zoom. Kim Eisenberg, a licensed clinical social worker and lead therapist of the Sharp Mesa Vista Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Trauma Recovery Program, suggested building connections by sending gifts in advance.
“You can send a physical care package in advance, and then do the opening on screen,” she said. “And then have a wide angle shot of all the people involved, have it on a big screen instead of a phone, anything you can do.”
She also suggested everyone in the family dress up in costumes for the Zoom call to make it more fun and engaging.
Make a picture-oriented craft to spur memories. If families aren’t going to be together for the holidays, gifts this year could include pictures to make people feel more connected. Try helping kids make picture frames or picture ornaments, or a calendar with different family members’ pictures every month.
It’s OK to Feel Sad
Eisenberg also recommended acknowledging that this year will be different, and allowing yourself to feel the sadness that comes with that.
“Give yourself some time and space to feel what you’re feeling,” she said. “People are experiencing high levels of disappointment, sadness, loneliness and they were maybe looking forward to connection and will be grieving that loss.”
To pretend that’s not happening will make people feel worse, she said.
“You can accept that reality and the uncomfortable feelings that come with it, and know that it’s OK to feel this is not the holiday season anyone wants to be having,” she said. “Feeling the pain of reality is better than rejecting reality.”
And, Eisenberg said, it can always be a good idea to reach out to professional help if you are struggling. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.