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Experts Say It’s Okay to Scale Back on the Holidays This Year

Instead of compounding stress in December — simplify

By Patricia Corrigan

Our routines, our sense of control, our jobs, our budgets — our very lives — have been disrupted this year. And that includes our birthday celebrations, weddings, anniversaries and a host of other special occasions. Now, here come the holidays.

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Maybe you've never felt comfortable simplifying your holiday preparations, cutting back on gift-buying or dialing down activities from frenetic to just fine. But 2020 provides the perfect excuse to do all three.

"We aren't always super good at setting our own boundaries in December, but this year, COVID-19 gives us an out," said Dr. Jessica Gold. "We need to give ourselves a break about everything — including the holidays."

Gold is assistant professor and the director of wellness, engagement and outreach in the psychiatry department at Washington University's School of Medicine in St. Louis.

She recommends several attitude adjustments to make changes easier to bear.

First, she says, we should acknowledge that nothing about the holidays this year will be the same as in past years.

We should also admit that with all the challenges we face now and in the days ahead, it's not possible to care as much about how we've celebrated in years gone by.

And we should gratefully accept that the global pandemic practically mandates that this year, without hurting anyone's feelings, we can decline to gather in each other's homes, just say "no" to traveling across the country and even opt not to display every last decoration in our storied collection.

Look to New Traditions

"Our emotions affect our concentration, our ability to get things done, and with so many different stressors right now, we don't have enough energy to take on anything more. This is a time to reevaluate where we invest our energy — and then do exactly what we want to do," Gold said. "Think about new ways to celebrate the holidays that adds to your cup, provides something you haven't had, fills it with hope and joy."

If money is tight, consider editing your gift list, especially if it's grown unwieldy over the years.

Based on an unscientific poll of friends and friends of friends, some ways to do that might include:

  • Buy gift cards from local bookshops, craft stores, arts organizations, coffee shops and restaurants. That helps them stay in business, and you have to wrap nothing. 
  • Donate to a local food bank in honor of friends and family members, and send cards letting them know you did.
  • Deliver festive bags filled with homemade goodies to close friends’ front porches.
  • Make photo books as special family keepsakes, and add your poetry or personal reflections.
  • Send handwritten notes on pretty stationery to far-flung family and friends.

Pick just one idea, or two at the most.

If money is tight, consider editing your gift list, especially if it's grown unwieldy over the years.

Simply call some near and dear acquaintances and propose that this year, instead of exchanging tangible gifts, you look forward to a big hug and a long lunch together when it's safe again. Those calls let you and your friends off the hook – and that's a gift right there. (Read more about the value of spending time instead of money).


Recall Past Periods of Resilience to Help You Cope

Some of us may choose to invent new traditions, some will stick with treasured practices and some will craft a comfortable compromise.

One woman I know has already made up a menu for "a nice Christmas dinner" — for herself. She will cook the meal and then enjoy it with her dog and two cats for company.

Another noted that decorating her home for Christmas means more than ever. "After all this time spent at home," she said, "I'm looking forward to having new things to look at."

Recalling memories of celebrations gone awry also brings benefits as we are reminded of times when our resilience helped us cope with uncertainty.

Gold says when contemplating changes, there is no right or wrong.

"As long as we keep it simple and happy, it can make sense to go back to those traditions that bring up good memories," she said.

Recalling memories of celebrations gone awry also brings benefits as we are reminded of times when our resilience helped us cope with uncertainty, Gold noted.

Remember that year your sister-in-law got the flu and canceled your traditional gathering at the last minute? What about when the gifts you ordered didn't arrive in time and you went to a family gathering empty-handed? At least once, an unexpected ice storm may have interfered with a special annual event.

"Or maybe you forgot to order a turkey and had to serve chicken," Gold said. "You made a joke, and moved on. It became a good story, rather than the worst thing that had ever happened."

Celebrate with Love, But Less Wrapping Paper

As we face more minimalist celebrations out of necessity, we can do that again. Even a difficult holiday season offers opportunity, said Leslie Davenport, a licensed integrative psychotherapist, author and climate psychology consultant with offices in Tacoma, Wash. and the San Francisco Bay Area.

"Holidays tend to have layered meanings: family or friends get-togethers, celebrations, treating others and ourselves, perhaps even time for indulgences," Davenport said. "But holidays also often carry a quieter, more reflective message: What really matters? What are the most important things in life?"

She continued, "While family and friends usually top the list, those experiences can also get lost in the pressure and consumer-driven hustle and bustle of holiday stress. As a whole, 2020 has asked us to slow down, pause and take a reflective look."

Davenport suggests digging a bit deeper to come up with new holiday traditions this year.

"We don't have to lose the heart and meaning if we change the tradition," she said. "Rather than simply viewing things as a loss of what normally happens, can we transform the season and optimize the reduction of holiday stress? Can we say 'I love you,' and 'You matter to me' in new ways? How can we celebrate each other with just as much love but less wrapping paper and bows?"

Convinced yet that it's okay this year to concentrate on what you want to do – no matter how bizarre or unconventional — rather than what you "should" do?

"Get 'should' out of your vocabulary," said Gold. "Be more accepting of what you are able to do and what about it that is positive, even if it can't be perfect. Let's get to a place where we are more compassionate with ourselves. And don't worry, if in spite of everything, you have a good day. You are allowed to be happy, to find the joy."

Patricia Corrigan
Patricia Corrigan is a professional journalist, with decades of experience as a reporter and columnist at a metropolitan daily newspaper, and also a book author. She has written for Next Avenue since February 2015. Read more from Patricia at Read More

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