In pre-pandemic times, Sarah Sheehan always headed to North Carolina for a hectic holiday schedule that included hopping between the homes of several different relatives, a Christmas Eve midnight church service and caroling around the rural county where her extended family lives.
“On Christmas morning, my grandparents, mom and I get together at my mom’s sister’s house with my uncle and cousins,” said Sheehan, 27, a content strategist and consultant in Virginia. “We always have biscuits and sausage gravy, quiche and cinnamon rolls with hot coffee or tea and eat breakfast together while opening presents.”
This year, however — with Covid-19 both raging and a handy excuse to bow out of the festivities, Sheehan said — she plans instead to be “curled up with my dog (at home), watching zombie shows while drinking wine and smoking a blunt.”
Sheehan looks forward to taking a break from her family’s busy holiday celebrations as well as not having to appear as “religious, conservative, or docile as I have to pretend to be when I’m home,” she said. “As much as I care for my family, we are incredibly different people. I love being with them in short doses, but a week or more at a time during Christmas is too much.”
‘Tis the season for avoidance
If you’re looking forward to pulling the pandemic card for a hall pass on the holidays with family this year, too, you’re not alone.
“Holidays can be a time of joy, but they can also be a time for obligation, so they don’t always feel so good,” said psychologist Wendy Rice of Rice Psychology Group, a general psychology practice in Tampa, Florida. “It’s not easy to get out of things because this is what your family does. It can be hard to break with tradition.”
But with officials at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health experts warning Americans to consider the risks of traveling for the holidays and advising against gathering in large groups, breaking with tradition might be easier than ever this festive season.
And for many people, breaking with tradition can serve to avoid the stress that often accompanies family gatherings.
Avoiding tension can get a bad rap as a coping tactic, said Shevaun Neupert, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who specializes in how people prepare and respond to stress. “But people are now realizing the value in avoidance,” she said. “There’s definitely a time and place where avoiding is the best strategy.”
Families “can be a source of tremendous support,” Neupert said, but they can also be toxic. “And sometimes both of those narratives can be used to describe the same family.”
It’s worth questioning if you should tackle problems within families head-on, she said. “Avoidance might be this really adaptive thing,” Neupert said. “We’re trying to stay physically distant but socially connected in ways that are helpful for us right now.”
Carrie Gray — a new mother to a 6-month-old in New York City — is cautious about exposing her baby during the pandemic. Covid-19 is a good reason to avoid the usual holiday get-togethers that she and her husband attend with up to 40 people in New Jersey and Connecticut.
“I don’t want all the people crowding my baby, touching her, squeezing her cheeks or making goopy faces at her,” Gray, 41, explained via email. “As a new mom, socializing takes extra energy that I just don’t have right now — all of my energy is reserved for my baby (and husband, too).”
A new mother may feel even more vulnerable during the pandemic, Neupert said, and avoidance can be a useful tool in coping. “For people who are able to navigate the stress in their lives, they’ve built a toolbox of coping tools they bring out, and with the pandemic it’s a brand-new type of stress we haven’t dealt with before,” she said.
If the pandemic is giving people an out to not show up for what might be a very uncomfortable family gathering, “that’s avoidance that’s really adaptive.”
Varying views on the pandemic are compounding stress
For some people, the pandemic has highlighted how differently family members interpret the dangers of Covid-19 — adding to the awkwardness of discussions around gathering in large groups for the holidays.
Alex Smith (not his real name), a tourism professional in his 30s who lives surrounded by family in a large city in the US South, said he typically enjoys gathering with his relatives throughout the year and during the holidays. (Smith didn’t want his real name published because he doesn’t want to offend family members and also has a high-profile job where it’s best to remain neutral in public.)
His decision not to gather with what could easily be upward of 40 family members for their annual holiday celebrations this year is purely Covid-19 related, he said.
Many of his extended family members feel the virus is a hoax, are anti-maskers or “think it’s not that bad because it’s not hitting as close to home,” he said. But having seen firsthand how the virus is decimating the tourism industry, he said it’s hard not to believe it’s real.
“It’s weird to have to become parents to your parents,” he said, “My mom was asking, ‘Should we cancel?’ and before she could answer her own question I was nodding my head, yes, absolutely.”
“Even the way in which people handle the pandemic is a source of discord in families,” Neupert said. “Some only listen to scientists. Others might say it’s all fake news.”
She suggested drawing on positive connections with other people around you as a way to cope, which is what Smith said he plans to do for the December holidays.
“It’s not a huge heartbreak (to skip the family gatherings this year),” he said. “It’ll be just us — a family of four with two young kids — with our pod neighborhood family with kids the same age and in the same school.”
“We’ll still have all our normal traditions and family things. We just won’t go sit on Santa’s lap.”
A chance to start new traditions
While for many people avoiding the holidays with family will be a sufficient strategy for coping with what promises to be a different finish to the year, others may feel the need to find safe ways to add social connections, Neupert said.
“Although there are parts of the gathering that might be really difficult, are there parts you’ll miss? Ask yourself what you can do to re-create it, if so,” she said.
Neupert said to play a regular holiday with your family through your head to consider what you like about the season (if anything).
Perhaps reach out to a relative for a favorite recipe, she said, or consider re-creating some kind of holiday decoration that’s important to your family. “The pandemic makes that challenging, so we have to get creative.”
For Canadians and Americans, how you spent Thanksgiving might have been a good dry run for what to expect for Christmas, Kwanza and Hanukkah. Reflect on your previous pandemic holiday experiences to inform how you want to spend the December holidays, Rice suggested.
“There’s a tendency to regress for many people when we go back to our family of origin. But maybe you didn’t Zoom with your family for Thanksgiving, and you realized you missed them,” she said.
“A half-hour on Zoom might be a nice way to be connected but not sucked into a weekend with them.”
Whether you start an entirely new tradition, re-create something you may be missing or opt not to celebrate at all, this holiday can be exactly what you want it to be.
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“I don’t plan on re-creating any traditions this year,” Sheehan said. “That may change as Christmas gets closer, but for now, I intend to just be.”
“There’s a lot of satisfaction in spending the Christmas season in the way that’s best for me instead of pressuring myself to involve other people just to say that I did.”
Terry Ward is freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida.