Beyond coping with COVID: How to find joy in an uncertain holiday season

By Jillian Cohan Martin
November 02, 2020

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Along with bringing joy, festivity and family connectedness to our lives, the holidays can raise our stress or highlight our feelings of isolation. And that’s before the headlines about COVID-19 rates surging across the country.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, we’re headed into a holiday season that will challenge our expectations. Many of us have canceled our travel plans, decided not to socialize with people outside our households, or are waiting to make plans until we know more about case counts. That’s according to a national survey Regence conducted with Feedback Loop, a consumer research platform.

These unusual circumstances are affecting our moods, too. In the same survey, 25% of all respondents said they feel stressed when thinking about the holidays this year. Nearly 20% reported feeling sad or overwhelmed, and almost 15% said they felt frustrated.

The majority of people surveyed — 75% — said COVID-19 prompted their emotions. And 55% said the coronavirus made them feel more stressed about holiday planning.

In light of all this, how can we not just cope, but find comfort and joy? Experts say it can help to:

  • Recognize that things will be different for you and your family.
  • Accept your feelings about these changes.
  • Stay connected to others.
  • Find creative ways to safely honor your traditions.

Recognize differences

When the nation shut down in March, it was hard to imagine the coronavirus being with us through the summer, let alone enduring through fall and winter.

But more than six months later, “there’s an underlying message that people are finally starting to understand: This pandemic is not going away anytime soon,” said Dr. James Polo, executive medical director at Regence and a practicing psychiatrist for more than 25 years.

With each seasonal marker — canceled spring break trips, staycations instead of summer vacations, Halloween without trick-or-treating, Thanksgiving via Zoom — the reality of living with COVID sets in even more.

It can help to recognize that our feelings of loss are cumulative, Polo said. “It’s not just about work. It’s not just about not being able to go shopping or go to a movie. It’s not just about not being able to socialize. It’s everything.”

Kids, especially, may feel the changes acutely, notes child behavior specialist and author Bonnie Harris. “All of us are more on edge than ever. And if we’re on edge, just multiply that by 10 — that’s our children, even if it looks like they’re doing OK.”

Children may not be able to communicate their anxieties without your help, she adds. Encourage little ones to talk about what they think will be different at the holidays, and how that makes them feel.

Accept your feelings

As COVID restrictions mount, it can be hard to catch your breath, let alone find joy. With each disappointment, we may be tempted to act like it’s no big deal, to project calm and certainty for our families.

That approach may be counter-productive, said Karen Gross, an educator and author of the book “Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door.”

Collectively, we’re experiencing the trauma of a global pandemic, she points out. “Trauma takes away our structure and stability in many ways. The absence of holiday traditions is another way. To address this, we need to be honest and acknowledge our feelings. We need to name how we feel so we can tame those feelings.”

Getting in touch with your own emotions is important, and so is setting the tone for your kids. If you’re not sure where to start, a family meeting is a good first step, suggests mental health counselor Tanya Peterson, the author of several books on anxiety and a writer for the startup Choosing Therapy.

A family meeting will help you emphasize that even though many things this year are out of everyone’s control, “how the holiday is for your family is very much in your family’s control,” Peterson says.

At the meeting you can:

  • Ask how your kids feel about restrictions on the holidays this year, and empathize with any disappointment they have.
  • Talk about what an enjoyable holiday means for your family, and what that looks like within your community’s COVID safety rules.  
  • Come up with a plan to celebrate, letting your kids be a key part of the process.

Stay connected

In the Feedback Loop survey, many people said togetherness is the most important part of the holiday season. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that we can’t visit, touch or otherwise connect with friends and family as we used to, they said.

“Grandkids are not going to really remember us if we continue to see each other online only,” one respondent said. “I miss interaction and hugs.”

The loss of the family meals, holiday parties, gift exchanges and seasonal festivities that usually mark this time of year is significant, Polo said. “We are driven to connect with other people — that's what helps us muddle through life.”

Resist the urge to isolate yourself, he said. “The biggest thing that folks have to do to struggle through this pandemic is continue to maintain social connections.”

This may mean waving at your neighbors through the window instead of caroling at their front door. Or spending an hour on the phone with a school friend instead of meeting up for hot cocoa. You might wrap presents with your in-laws via FaceTime since they won’t be at your house for Christmas. Or set your webcam on the table so grandma and grandpa can watch your kids light the Hanukah menorah.

However you do it, making effort to be part of loved ones’ lives at the holidays can brighten your outlook. And it goes both ways.

“I usually recommend that at the same time you’re thinking about how you handle your own sense of stress, think about what you are doing to help the others around you,” Polo said. “Indirectly what I’m also asking is, what are they doing to help you?”

Chances are, you have more resources for support than you realize — as long as you’re willing to draw on them.

Get creative

Once you’ve accepted that some of the things you love about the holidays won’t come to pass, you can make room for new approaches that still capture the essence of the season.

“A lot of times with rituals or holidays it’s not just the celebration, it’s the anticipation of celebration. Especially with kids, the more we can extend it into our regular days, the more fun it will be,” said parenting writer and podcaster Asha Dornfest.

As you brainstorm ideas with your family, think about safe ways to add magic to the everyday, suggests Dornfest, whose books include “Parent Hacks” and “Minimalist Parenting.”

Each household’s celebrations will be different, of course. But here are some ideas to that may inspire your holiday spirit, 2020 edition:

  • Go big with seasonal decorations, inside and out.
  • Mail or drop off festive treats for friends and neighbors.
  • Tour light displays by car or on a socially distanced walk.
  • Prepare favorite recipes with relatives over video chat.
  • After a festive meal, invite friends and family to join you online for board games, trivia or cards.
  • Watch holiday movies, tree lightings and other events virtually with loved ones on apps like AirTime and HouseParty.
  • Make a slideshow of your holiday fun and share it with family on Zoom.

Throughout the season, encourage your kids to use their imaginations, from trimming the tree to watching the ball drop. It doesn’t matter if they come up with small activities or big ones — “the goal is to have fun and be enthralled in new ways,” said Gross.

“Now is the time for engagement and cooperation and collaboration,” she added. “The point here is to create new traditions, some of which might stick beyond COVID.”


Jillian Cohan Martin is a journalist and content strategist based in Portland, Oregon.