Preparing for the Holidays Amidst the Pandemic

 In Blog

Previously published in FOCUS On Scugog (December 2020)

I’m having trouble imagining the holidays without a house filled with friends and family. I’d happily restrict myself to just having our son come home but I know that as an essential worker it is simply not safe or responsible for him to do so this year. One of the things that I have been thinking about lately is how frequently military families routinely experience separations with loved ones who are away from home serving the country at all times of year. And although that has not been my experience, I know such things are very familiar to them. This has shamed me somewhat and made me reflect a little about the costs involved in being a part of a larger community.

The idea of actively practicing social responsibility at the expense of personal freedoms, has been a sore point for many. Personally, I resent those people who refuse to wear a mask in public and who ridicule the safety measures recommended by health professionals. But it is what it is. I cannot pressure others into doing the right thing, I can only do my part to act responsibly.

But very real and pressing questions confront me about the upcoming holidays: What shall we do, if anything, to celebrate and what will that look like? What is the point of celebrating at all if we are unable to have family and friends present? So many of our traditions and family rituals are not feasible this year. But do I decorate anyway? Do I cook the customary foods and bake the favorite desserts? Will it be more or less dismal to abandon all of these seasonal practices? It’s hard to know.

What I do know is that it’s important to start asking these questions now, and for all of us to examine our priorities and start planning. These questions aren’t just practical or logistical ones, nor are they really discussions about personal safety. Rather, they are primarily emotional ones. Missing out on the things we typically enjoy and look forward to means that we may feel disappointed and sad, and maybe even a little resentful. To be honest, “pandemic fatigue” is setting in for me. This is a term coined by Terri Peterson at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S counsellor offers advice on copying with holiday stress during the pandemic, Regina, CJME News, October 7, 2020, counsellor-offers-advice-on-coping-with-holiday-stress-during-the-pandemic/) which I think describes perfectly my desire to ignore pandemic-related cautions. Frankly, I’m feeling a little weary in well-doing. I’ve been good for eight months but I have my limits; surely one day won’t make such a difference, is the temptation swirling around in my head. But I do know differently and fortunately, my partner is far more rational about these things.

Dr. Bennett at the Cleveland Clinic, has written about the importance of “coping ahead”. Bennet suggests that in addition to assessing risk factors and managing family expectations, we need to confront our emotions. Bennett says that while “it’s okay to admit that you’re sad and disappointed and that you’ll miss these events,” she adds, “it’s entirely possible to still turn the holidays into a positive experience with alternative plans, even if they’re not the plans you’d hoped for” (How to Cope with Holiday Family Gatherings and the Coronavirus Pandemic, October 8, 2020, Cleveland Clinic, ).

Coping ahead, as Dr. Bennett puts it, could involve being flexible, honest and creative about how we plan for the season. Negotiating with family members and friends to find ways of meaningfully engaging with them will be this year’s big challenge. Can we do a socially-distanced food exchange, an outdoor socially- distanced activity together, a zoom visit, a distanced gift exchange? Is there a particularly meaningful tradition that could be shared virtually in some way? Or do we defer the occasion entirely and celebrate when we can safely be together, however far away that may be?

Honest communication with your loved ones will be more important than ever this year. Most of us have made huge concessions in our lives and have adapted to the ‘new world order’ of public health mandates. We have done the crisis management thing and have gradually adjusted to a less social, less busy life. Many people are working from home, commuting less often, shopping and dining out less frequently, and cocooning more. Driveway, fence and porch visits have become precious. We have examined our priorities and made decisions about how we want to shape our lives in the midst of this. In as much as the pandemic has been a blight and a curse, it has also provided an opportunity for reflection.

I understand that it will be important for our mental health to confront our anxieties about the holidays and to begin to make workable plans (Expert shares tips for managing holiday stress during pandemic, Kris Reyes, October 26, 2020 11:00PM, Coping ahead and accepting and planning for a different kind of holiday season is my current priority. A longer-term plan includes a “reward family vacation” for a time when we are no longer in a public health crisis. I’m fantasizing about holiday destinations and travel plans and setting aside some funds to make that happen when it is safe to do so.

Some concrete items on my personal to-do list for holiday planning include the following:
✔ Contacting close family and friends and asking how we can safely share some holiday magic.
✔ Sending holiday cards (e-cards and regular ones).
✔ Baking two or three special holiday treats and making arrangements to drop them off.
✔ Purchasing most (if not all) gifts locally to support our struggling merchants.
✔ Contributing generously to charities that support those in need (i.e., Operation Scugog).
✔ Focusing on the “reason for the season” and being reflective about what the holidays represent.
✔ Allowing myself to grieve a little for what will not happen while also acknowledging that however awful this feels, it is temporary and will eventually end.

I hope this is helpful to those of you who are similarly struggling to make things feel special in the midst of what is truly challenging.