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Young children speak to their grandparents over video chat on their laptop.
Young children speak to their grandparents over video chat on their laptop.
Young children speak to their grandparents over video chat on their laptop.

14 Tips for Winter Holidays during the COVID-19 Pandemic

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As we near the end of a long, challenging year, the coronavirus pandemic continues, with the largest surge of cases to date. At the same time, the winter holiday season is upon us, and after months of cancellations, masks and hand sanitizer, many of us could use some comfort and joy.

Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, Dongzhi and other celebrations offer inspiring stories, songs and ideas for fun, new traditions you can bring into your home.

Psychologists Carisa Parrish, Ph.D., and Jennifer Katzenstein, Ph.D., each specialize in treating children and adolescents – Dr. Parrish at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and Dr. Katzenstein at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. They have insights for people of all ages who celebrate holidays in the winter months, and offer suggestions on how to enjoy the magic of the season, stay safe and healthy, and await the new year with some hope as a COVID-19 vaccine becomes a reality.

The Best Gift: Maintaining COVID-19 Precautions

An African American family light Kwanzaa candles.

Because of the COVID-19 surge this holiday season, celebrating as usual could put you and your loved ones — or someone else’s — at risk and overwhelm local health care facilities. Parrish acknowledges that it’s a sacrifice, but staying vigilant with proven coronavirus precautions can offer family members, friends and other families a priceless gift: protection from COVID-19. In addition, your commitment helps ensure that people in your community who need critical medical care can get it and not be turned away at overcrowded hospitals.

Have Yourself a Safer Little Season: Postpone Gatherings

A tree decorated in holiday lights shines brightly in the front yard of a home.

It sounds harsh, but it’s true: Gatherings with those from outside your own household are dangerous this holiday season. That includes visiting friends and relatives in their homes, kids’ pageants and parties, gathering for festive restaurant meals and attending crowded, in-person worship services. Staying home (or at least 6 feet apart and masked from people outside your immediate household) helps you avoid COVID-19 and unknowingly spreading it to others who might be vulnerable. Follow these tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the specifics of getting together with others.

College Kids and Quarantine

Two young people have a snowball fight outdoors.

If you have daughters and sons returning from college for winter break, be aware that they could unknowingly bring home COVID-19 along with their laundry. It may be time for a heart-to-heart conversation if there are older adults or chronically ill family members living with you who are especially at risk. Returning college students can quarantine at home, maintaining at least 6 feet of distance from others for 14 days and, along with everyone in the household, keeping a mask on. Some colleges and universities are offering COVID-19 tests for students planning to leave campus for winter break. Please remember that a negative test only reflects one point in time though and is not a substitute for quarantine and infection prevention precautions.

The Virus Is Frightful: Not Traveling Can Be Delightful

A young man uses his computer with his dog sitting on his lap.

Traveling is strongly discouraged during the current surge in coronavirus cases. Crowded airports, terminals, planes, trains and buses are places where you may be more likely to catch or spread the coronavirus. Traveling between states in the U.S. may be restricted, with quarantines in some places. If it’s a genuine emergency and you cannot reschedule your trip for a safer time, check with the CDC’s travel information, and consult health advisories in your destination and home state. Make sure you’ve had a flu shot, and be especially mindful of physical distancingmask-wearing and hand hygiene.

Not Feeling Jolly? It’s OK

A mother hugs her child.

There’s an expectation that holidays should be joyous. People struggling emotionally can feel pressure to put on a happy face to preserve the festive mood for those around them. This is a good year to ease up: If you or your kids just aren’t feeling it this year, give yourselves a break. Parrish says that children and teens (and adults, too) miss their friends and taking part in seasonal parties and celebrations. Families can support each other and make room for grief and disappointment as these feelings arise.

Merry Malls and Marketplaces: Plan Ahead

Santa talks to children over videochat on a tablet.

If you are venturing out with kids to shop for gifts or to visit Santa, be especially careful and plan ahead. Check online or by phone to find out what precautions the mall or store is using to keep customers safe from the coronavirus: Some public places are getting creative and coming up with safe ways kids can “visit” Santa, using clear partitions or computer screens. Mask up and ensure curious young children stay at least 6 feet away from others outside of your household. Have a list, shop as efficiently as you can and avoid lingering, especially in crowded stores, where infectious droplets and aerosols from others can accumulate.

Ring in New Traditions for Children (of All Ages) to Enjoy

A family sits around the coffee table, playing a board game.

“Create new traditions,” recommends Katzenstein. “Traditions provide a sense of stability and family engagement, as well as personal meaning that can be carried forth from year to year. This year, this could be especially meaningful if we aren’t seeing family we would typically see. Activities could include handwritten notes, creating special arts or crafts, or making an ornament and craft that describes some of the good things that have happened this year.”

Not All Holiday Fun Translates to “Virtual” Substitutes

A young woman yawns while using her computer.

Parrish cautions parents and families against trying to recreate every holiday tradition with a virtual version. Kids and grown-ups may be understandably tired of screen time, and that’s all right. Plan ahead and have a candid discussion with your family (including the children) to decide together what sounds genuinely fun and which events you’d prefer to skip until it’s more likely they can take place normally. “The wisdom of your emotions can guide you to something that’s right for you,” Parrish says.

Lighten Up with Laughter

Two small children run around the house, laughing.

“Information we take in shapes our mind, our thoughts and feelings,” Parrish says. And for months now, adults and children alike have been on a media “diet” heavy on pandemic updates. Parrish says that balancing out the gloomy stuff with a big helping of humor can restore the spirit. From the sweet to the snarky, comedy is a healthy choice. The holiday season offers plenty of funny and uplifting movies and TV shows, late-night comedy and old favorites.

Walk in a Winter Wonderland

A family laughs as they ride a sled together downhill in the snow.

Physical activity is a great way to shake off the pandemic blues this winter. Even when it’s cold outside, being outdoors can offer fresh air and sights and sounds to calm the spirit. A family stroll through a nearby green space or park can reveal a peaceful beauty that’s often overlooked during this normally busy season. Take a walking holiday lights tour of your neighborhood, and pick your favorite display. Dust off the sled, or string fresh cranberries and popcorn for a traditional outdoor garland that birds and wildlife can enjoy.

Kindle a New Appreciation of Others

An older couple wave to their adult daughter from their doorway.

Parrish says being apart from friends and relatives this year can give children a new perspective on family ties. Older children and teens who normally balk at visiting kin may see those annual obligations in a new light. You can support those new insights by encouraging children to express their thoughts on what family members mean to them. “This is also a great time to remember what the holidays are all about,” says Katzenstein, “helping out one another or doing something special each day for each other or someone else, including helping a neighbor or working with a local charity.” 

Here’s to Your (Mental) Health

A young boy sits in a window, looking at the snow outside.

While the holiday season will offer some happy moments, stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic is real, and may worsen during the winter months. Everyone is bound to have some stressful, sad or frustrating moments, but if a child’s bleak mood, irritability, substance use or sadness seems to be persistent or worsening, get help for them. Call your family doctor or local health clinic, and ask if counseling is available through telemedicine or other means.

Let It Snow!

A young family cooks breakfast together in the kitchen.

Parrish says that winter holidays may mean families have time off work and school while being more or less limited to activities inside the house. Her idea: Treat these days like snow days, and enjoy your favorite snowed-in activities, like a big home-cooked breakfast, an indoor workout, some binge-watching of your favorite shows, catching up with friends by phone or online, and relaxing together on the sofa.

Look for a Glimmer (or More) of Hope

A family lights their menorah together.

Though the coronavirus pandemic certainly feels as though it has gone on forever — especially to children — it will end. COVID-19 vaccines are offering hope, and it is possible that the new year will bring positive news about gradually returning to our usual activities and rejoining those whom we’ve missed. Many cultures’ observances of winter holidays involve candles that provide light in darkness, and stories about the value of patience, courage and community. As your family waits out these difficult months, together you can keep that flame alight.

Scientist carefully insets a pipette into a test tube.

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

What you need to know from Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Published December 11, 2020