A holiday wreath is shown.
Consider the bright side of the holidays and make them as merry as possible. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

While rising case levels are causing families everywhere to rethink holiday plans, Lyndsay Volpe-Bertram, PsyD, has advice we can hang our tinsel on: “COVID-19 ain’t stopping Santa.”

She acknowledges that for many, the past couple of years have caused genuine grief.

“There have been so many small losses,” she said. “And if you are the kind of person who longs for large family gatherings and plenty of long visits with extended family, this year is going to feel very different.”

But different, she said, doesn’t have to mean terrible.

“This situation has made it very easy for people to catastrophize and predict things will be worse than they are,” Dr. Volpe-Bertram said. “But just because the holidays may look different this year, it doesn’t mean we have lost them.”

And with a little planning, “we can still make the most of family connections.”

Consider your approach

The first step? Don’t just share the rules. Share the love.

“Protecting families may take some firm boundary setting, and family members may be disappointed at a declined invitation or a canceled event,” she said. “But if you quickly follow it up with ideas of how to connect, it will lessen the sting.”

Before making alternative plans, check guidelines about social gatherings, including the CDC’s national holiday guidelines.

Then, when planning out how this holiday will look and feel, pay close attention to kids and make sure to not let adult-sized angst color their perceptions.

“My kids are young. I’m pretty sure that if I tell them this is going to be the best holiday ever, they’ll believe me,”  she said.

Teens may have a tougher time.

“They may not be the most rational creatures, but we can still validate what they’re feeling,” Dr. Volpe-Bertram said. “They’d probably rather be spending more time with friends than with family, and it’s normal for them to feel sad and angry that they can’t.”

Focus on family favorites

Next, drill down on what people love most about the holiday, from the youngest to the eldest in your family. The holidays don’t have to be about all the things we canceled.

“Think about traditions that matter the most, and find a different way to honor them,” she said.

Bond with food

Families who live near each other, but are not vaccinated or feel unsafe gathering indoors, can cook for one another and drop food off on the doorstep, “so they are sharing a meal.”

For distanced families, this might be a time to make cookies and mail them to family members.

Organize family challenges around food. “Show them off over video calls—whose Jell-O mold turned out the best? The worst?”

Schedule some sentiment

Zoom-ing through an entire meal or Christmas morning probably isn’t practical, so find ways to share words that mean the most.

Ask a grandparent to read “A Visit from St. Nicholas” just for the kids. Set a time to call in for a toast, a shared blessing, or a quick round of “This year, I’m most grateful for…”

Belt out the tunes

The pandemic packs a bitter punch for those who love caroling or gathering around a family piano: Singing spreads coronavirus cooties.

But virtual singing is perfectly safe, so stage an online sing-along.

Game on

Many families jumped into virtual game nights early in the pandemic, but it’s not too late to start.

Apps like House Party, Google Hangouts and Zoom make it easy. Just set a time, pick a theme, suggest snack ideas–and roll the dice.

Take it outside

“Virtual walks and runs have been popular throughout the pandemic,” she said. “Those are safely done at a distance. Or you can bring your phone and talk to family members as they walk a similar course in another place.”

For outdoor activities, remember to mask up and try to stay at least 6 feet away from others.

Dress for dinner

Clothes make every party more festive.

“My sister and I are planning to dress our kids in matching pajamas to make us all feel more together while we video chat–and it might even make it easy for us to Photoshop pictures later,” she said.

And if ugly sweaters are part of the family tradition? “Why not make it a video contest?”

Don’t forget New Year’s Eve

Many people can’t wait to say “Auld Lang Syne” to this year. Consider a way to connect that day as well, turning a page to a new—and hopefully, healthier—year.

Keep it in perspective

Finally, it helps to acknowledge silver linings.

“It may feel good to know that you don’t have to cram the kids in a car and drive three hours, go nuts cooking a meal for 18 people or spend as much on gifts,” Dr. Volpe Bertram said. “And remember—this is just one (more) holiday season of our lives. It’s not forever.”