Turkey dinners alfresco, bundled up around a fire pit. Rounds of dreidel over Zoom. Face masks decked with holly patterns and ornaments showing Santa in PPE.
A holiday season unlike any other is approaching.
As Minnesotans firm up plans amid a flaring pandemic, they’re trying to find ways to make the upcoming holidays both safe and meaningful. Making them “normal,” however, may be out of reach for many families, especially as COVID-19 surges in Minnesota.
On Tuesday, Gov. Tim Walz restricted the size of indoor and outdoor private gatherings to 10 and under, and limited them to people from just three households.
Walz said the state isn’t “going into someone’s home and arresting them on Thanksgiving,” but that Minnesotans should use the new restrictions as guidance. Many have already scaled back celebration plans.
Bill Kinney’s parents were set to host his family in North Carolina over Thanksgiving — a much-desired get together, especially for the grandkids. But after hearing University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm talk about the risks, Kinney’s mom admitted she was worried. They decided to call it off.
“From a nonemotional standpoint, it was an easy decision,” said Kinney, a Minneapolis accountant. “My parents and aunt are high-risk and we would bring too many risks into their home. From an emotional standpoint, it was very difficult. I will miss being with them.”
According to the CDC and Minnesota public health officials, large indoor gatherings with people outside your immediate family present a high risk, especially in areas where COVID-19 is spreading widely in the community. Mixing generations and adding possible exposure from travel can create an even riskier scenario.
State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm has urged Minnesotans to keep holiday gatherings small, telling reporters “This is not a typical year.”
A recent consumer survey found that 70% of Americans plan to celebrate Thanksgiving differently in 2020. Some will host smaller gatherings, while others, like Kumi Smith, are deciding to forgo in-person events altogether.
Most years, Smith flies from the Twin Cities to New York to spend either Thanksgiving or Christmas with her family. But in 2020, she will stay in Minnesota with her partner for both holidays — hosting a family Zoom session and sending gifts.
“My parents are older; they’re approaching 80. And I don’t have any housing options besides their home if I went, so it would mean staying in a hotel. Hanging out outdoors in the winter would suck,” she said. “All of those things make it more tempting to just kind of not bother.”
Mourn, then focus
Being unable to gather to give thanks or celebrate winter holidays isn’t something to shrug off or minimize, said Lynn Bufka, a clinical psychologist and senior director at the American Psychological Association.
“I think it’s important for people to perhaps mourn a little bit that they may not be able to do the things they traditionally do for the holidays,” she said. “It’s OK to be a little bit sad about that.”
Honoring traditions can make us feel a connection to our extended family and loved ones, and doing the same things each year in the same way can bring up warm, comforting and anticipatory feelings, she said.
“It’s a cue that I feel good, this is great. Emotionally and mentally, it really gets us in the spirit and helps us feel good about things,” she said.
Bufka suggests trying to find a balance between limiting risks and maintaining your emotional well-being by focusing on the parts of a holiday (a religious rite, giving gifts or enjoying special food) that are most meaningful to you and letting go of everything else.
“I would encourage people to think about it as an opportunity, to think: ‘What’s important to me about this holiday? Maybe I’ve always done X, but I don’t really like it that much. It’s a holdover from my ex-husband, or something that my mom really loved, but I never really loved and I was so guilty not doing it,’ ” Bufka said. “This might be the year to give it up.
“You’ve just got to be patient with yourself and give yourself a little bit of grace.”
In person or virtually
Smith, an assistant professor in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota, plans to celebrate the winter holidays with her parents via Zoom. But she said that visiting family can be made safer with a combination of testing, quarantine and conversation.
“If you’re really concerned, testing twice before you go, about five to seven days apart might be a good way, because it takes a little time from first infection to when the test can pick it up,” Smith said.
After each test, she recommends you “really minimize your contacts, because if you are negative on one day, and while waiting for results you’re exposed and infected, then having a negative result is meaningless.”
It’s also helpful for everyone at a potential gathering to discuss in advance their risk tolerance and comfort levels, such as “being in the same indoor space, hugging, sharing a meal, things like that,” Smith said.
Then, make decisions based on the most cautious person’s wishes, she said.
There are plenty of ways to connect virtually — from sending silly gifts that everyone opens at once to sharing recipes so that families across the country can be eating the same dish at the same time.
And, of course, there’s always next year.
“The biggest thing that we all need to do more of right now is to just say, ‘It’s OK to feel this way.’ ” said Bufka. “This is the year to just go with ‘This is what it is.’ ”