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Is it Time to Rethink Holiday Traditions?

Personal Perspective: The pandemic may give us the perfect excuse to do so.

Key points

  • Holiday stress is nothing new, but the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges.
  • The Coronavirus has already interrupted our lives, so maybe this is a good time to recalibrate our celebrations and rethink our traditions.

Songs like “Over the River and through the Woods to Grandmother’s House we Go” are intended to generate feelings of anticipation and nostalgia about the approaching holidays. But for many of us the thought of navigating minefields of political and social discord in the midst of an uncertain pandemic can feel overwhelming. While the country has been politically divided before (we did have a Civil War) we are clearly living through a period of polarization exacerbated by the effects of the lockdown on our economy and mental health and the social media echo chamber we live in.

But maybe the very uncertainty we are facing provides us with the perfect opportunity to think about what we want our holidays to look like going forward. Last year many families chose not to congregate for fear of contagion, travel was, and still remains difficult, and supply chain shortages have made shopping feel like a scavenger hunt. I still remember my sense of satisfaction when I found the last bag of flour in my local Walgreens. The more traditional grocery stores had been out for days, and I was intent on baking some sugar cookies.

However, there were also aspects of the “traditional holidays” that I didn’t miss. I enjoyed not rushing between competing parties. It was nice to open gifts on Christmas morning without the pressure of preparing a major meal later, and to read a novel on New Years Eve. Of course, for other people the enforced quiet of the 2020 holiday season was disappointing and people dealing with lockdown isolation, the loss of friends and family members or economic hardships faced different challenges.

Still, what we have in common is the freedom that taking a year off from our “traditions” provides us. Just as many Americans are reassessing their job prospects, and in many cases making changes in their employers and career plans, we can rethink what we want from the holidays. If your family or friend group still likes to get together, what will you need to do to make sure it is pleasant for everyone, especially you? Can you simplify the menu, or have more people contribute to the preparations? If you missed decorating you might want to go all out this year, but if you liked having a low key holiday you could decide to leave all those traditional ornaments, candles, and snow villages on the shelf. You might also consider spreading out your traditions.

I know people who have deliberately switched to sending their holiday letter in the spring, so people have more time to read it. Others have decided to simplify their gift giving by sharing experiences or drawing names. Others have put dollar limits on gifts or required that they be handmade. The point is that all traditions start somewhere so why not start some new ones this year?

Of course, these suggestions assume that the people in your holiday circle will be civil with each other. Unfortunately, that is not always a given, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up on a peaceful holiday. What if you declared a ban on talking about politics during the family gathering? Or agreed not to engage when that one recalcitrant person tries to stir things up? It is hard to continue an argument when no one else is responding. Or maybe you could agree that if someone does create drama by arguing, or even leaving, you will treat their behavior the way you would that of a teenager or a toddler. You offer them reasonable support, and some possible solutions to the problem. If that doesn’t work, they may have to let the celebration go on without their participation. While we all have the right to express our emotions, we aren’t obligated to let someone else’s lack of problem-solving ruin our holiday. If you don’t feel up to dealing with specific situations or people you could even do something altogether different this year. Visit a friend who doesn’t live near your family for the holidays, take a camping trip over the holidays, or announce to everyone that you are volunteering to serve meals or distribute gifts this year and so won’t be available for the annual get together.

It is likely that many of us will also have to face the “Covid Elephant” in the room. If there are people in your circle who refuse to adhere to the health precautions you follow, you may have to avoid the festivities this year. Although the vaccine has made a significant difference in our overall vulnerability, people are still immunocompromised, many children are not yet vaccinated, and people vary greatly in what they think of us as safety precautions. The key is to fall back on the “tried and true” communication strategy of couching all of your comments in I instead of you.

Although the message is ultimately the same compare the following two statements. “We aren’t coming to your house this year because you selfishly won’t get vaccinated” and “I know getting vaccinated is a personal choice but I’m really nervous about getting Covid so we are going to stay home this year, maybe things will be different next year.” As your mother probably told you, it isn’t just what you say, but also how you say it! If folks still aren’t willing to honor your point of view that might be a sign that you need to rethink the state of the relationship overall, since the health stakes of these decisions are quite high. In the end, the holidays are supposed to be a time of fellowship and rejuvenation. If that wasn’t your experience before the pandemic, why not take the time to make it happen going forward?


Fujishin, R. (2016). The Art of Communication: Improving your fundamental communication skills. Rowman & Littlefield.