With Christmas less than two months away, Mallory Miller, 7, was starting to get worried. How would Santa avoid the coronavirus while traveling from house to house this year?
“Isn’t he concerned that he might get sick?” she asked.
Mallory’s mother, Kelley Miller, said she was taken aback by her daughter’s questions. Like many things about the pandemic, there weren’t obvious answers.
She told Mallory that Santa and his reindeer would wear masks and that they would move really quickly when visiting the Millers’ home in Ashburn, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C.
Mallory pondered this for a moment and concluded that leaving out milk and cookies would be a bad idea. “We don’t want him taking off his mask in the house, because he’s traveled,” she said. Her mother agreed.
So they decided that this year, instead of treats, they would give Santa a hand-decorated disposable mask and a large bottle of hand sanitizer.
This holiday season is going to be a little bizarre. Pandemic-themed Christmas ornaments are top sellers. Family gatherings are being dramatically altered or canceled entirely. Traveling to the local mall to snap an annual picture with Santa feels forbidden. Some Jewish families are planning to light the menorah over Zoom. And religious services, like those that were held during the Jewish High Holy Days in September, are happening outside, online or with other modifications.
In order to feel safe and create some semblance of the holiday spirit, families are redefining traditions and rituals that they might not ordinarily think of changing.
Talesha Savage, 39, who lives in a suburb of Atlanta, will not be attending a big Thanksgiving feast with her extended family this year. Instead, three relatives will visit her home for a quick, socially distanced outdoor tasting of their favorite desserts. They’ll eat a poundcake that Savage makes every year in memory of her mother, who died when she was 9, and sample her stepmother’s chocolate “ooey gooey” cake, with a rich center that tastes like a half-cooked brownie.
“I’m thinking about things differently,” she said. “How do we maintain our traditions but add a twist to it?”
At first, she said, the prospect of such an abbreviated celebration left her feeling “very sad and lonely.” She and her extended family typically spend a lot of time together, and she misses them.
But lately, as coronavirus cases have continued to climb, she started to feel relieved that they decided to prioritize safety and avoid a potential family-gathering-turned-super-spreader-event.
Their focus on Thanksgiving dessert also means a lot less work, less stress and fewer trips to the store, she added.
“One thing that Covid has forced me to do is be more present and in the moment,” she said. “I’ve really had the opportunity to slow down.”
In some areas, families will need to follow new state rules when creating their holiday plans.
New York has limited private indoor and outdoor gatherings to 10 people. In California, state leaders have told residents not to gather with people from outside their households, and to resist visiting relatives over the holidays. And on Monday, Washington State prohibited indoor gatherings with people from more than one household (unless participants meet specific quarantine or testing requirements).
Alexandra Gunnoe, 40, who lives in Seattle, plans to visit her parents on Christmas Eve. (Her family will quarantine for two weeks and get tested for Covid-19 beforehand.) Usually her extended family would fly in so they could all spend Christmas together. And her children — ages 7 and 17 months — would normally see their friends throughout the month of December. But this year they had to improvise and find different activities.
“It’s rough, but I think the bigger picture is let’s deal with this for a year, try and get this under control, and if that saves lives then I feel like I’m all for it,” she said.
Even in parts of the country that have no restrictions on indoor gatherings, many families remain cautious. Krista Kearns, 40, who lives in Missoula, Mont., said she hasn’t seen her in-laws since last year’s Thanksgiving, which has been hard even though they still see each other over FaceTime.
Because they can’t visit their relatives this year, Kearns, her husband and their two children are planning to broadcast a Thanksgiving talent show over Zoom. She would like her extended family to participate in the show, but some of them “might need some coercing,” she said.
“It feels good in the sense that everybody’s doing the right thing so that when it’s safe to be together, we’ll all actually be there,” she said.
Finding new ways to to create stability and connection is important, especially during the pandemic, said Dimitris Xygalatas, an associate professor of anthropology and psychology at the University of Connecticut, who has studied rituals for two decades.
The predictable and rigid nature of rituals helps to soothe anxiety and form social bonds, he added.
“This is precisely the time where we need these rituals or traditions more than ever, and it’s exactly the time where we can’t have them. It creates a lot of extra anxiety,” Dr. Xygalatas said.
Even before the pandemic, people were altering how they spent the holidays. In recent years, more people have identified as atheist or agnostic and are therefore not participating in religious rituals as much as they used to, said Mike Norton, a professor at the Harvard Business School who is working on a book about rituals in everyday life.
“You could say that’s because people don’t want rituals, but instead people clearly do because now they’re creating all sorts of new rituals,” like yoga and spin class, Dr. Norton said.
And over the course of a lifetime, milestones like the birth of a new child or a marriage will not only change who we celebrate with but oftentimes the way in which we celebrate, he added.
This year’s sudden changes are bound to feel a little jarring. But it’s still possible for the holidays to feel special.
Pooja Makhijani, a New York Times contributor, recently wrote about how she wouldn’t be celebrating Diwali, the Hindu festival, the way she usually does: This year, her family mailed their treats instead of hand-delivering them, and they created new traditions, “like planting bulbs in the backyard that will bloom in the spring to represent the passage of another year,” she wrote. Despite the changes, she added, she felt eager to experience the comfort and joy that Diwali brings.
Kelley Miller, whose daughter is leaving Santa a hand-decorated mask and sanitizer, decided this year to incorporate a holiday ritual from her own childhood.
When Miller, 45, was young, she would look through the Sears catalog and carefully write down the item numbers and descriptions of the toys she wanted. Her parents then set the list ablaze in the fireplace. She was told that the smoke rising from the chimney would waft toward Santa’s home at the North Pole and magically convey her wishes.
Miller’s daughter thinks it sounds like something Harry Potter would do, and is excited to try it out. A win-win, allowing the family to skip their annual trip to visit Santa in person.
“It’s kind of brilliant,” Miller said. “It’s really saved us this year.”