The holiday season is a time for loved ones. If in-person gatherings aren’t possible this year, here are some alternative ways to celebrate together and keep the spirit alive.

It’s beginning to look a lot like … a socially distanced holiday season. Almost everything looks (and sounds) a little different this year, lending added poignancy to favorites like “We Gather Together,” “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.

Holidays, especially the end-of-year ones, are all about loved ones, togetherness, giving thanks, and reflecting on what truly matters. For many this year, with family members and friends at heightened risk from the coronavirus, celebrations of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and the New Year simply won’t be the same. This season may be the time to begin some new traditions (or put a fresh spin on old ones). Adapt to travel restrictions and observe quarantining protocols while still keeping the spirit alive!

Peace on Earth

This has been one stressful and divisive year. Rather than pointing fingers, what if we joined hands (metaphorically speaking, for now)? In order to “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me,” you might consider:

Expanding your horizons. Whatever your beliefs, why not invest a little time in learning about someone else’s traditions that are different from yours? If you are largely unfamiliar with Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, for example, a brief introduction is likely to enhance rather than diminish your appreciation for this meaningful time of year. Visit the library, conduct online research or, even better, invite friends or neighbors to share insights into their own ceremonies. In light of COVID-19, you might do this through a videoconferencing app (see below for more on virtual gatherings).

Shining a little light. The lighting of candles is a meaningful ceremony in several traditions. In the Jewish faith, candles on the Hanukkah menorah are lit one by one during the eight-night “Festival of Lights.” During Kwanzaa, a candle is lit to celebrate each of the seven principles of African culture and community. Many churches hold Christmas Eve candlelight services with prayer, quiet reflection and the passing of the flame from person to person. This secular site allows you to light a virtual candle and leave an uplifting message for others.

Virtual Gatherings

Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, Webex, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams and other videoconferencing apps have made it much easier to share special moments in real time from afar. Use them for:

Singing carols or holiday tunes. Chances are, you can’t sync these sing-alongs―unless you’re a professional working with other professionals (or at least well-trained singers) and you have a LOT of time on your hands to make a virtual choir music video. If all you want is a fun, in-the-moment group experience, let participants take turns singing their favorite song―be it “Silent Night,” “I Have a Little Dreidel” or “The Kwanzaa Song”―while the others mute their own audio and sing along at home.

Sharing a classic holiday story aloud. Whether it’s Luke’s biblical account of the Christ child’s birth, the story behind the celebration of Hanukkah in 1 and 2 Maccabees, Dickens’ ghostly “A Christmas Carol,” Seven Spools of Thread: A Kwanzaa Story by Angela S. Medearis and Daniel Minter, Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (“ ’Twas the night before Christmas …”), or another favorite, videoconferencing lets you enjoy the facial expressions and gestures of the reader.

Worship. Since the pandemic broke, many, if not most, houses of worship have been streaming their services online. Whatever your faith or denomination, you probably can find a service online to suit you.

Opening gifts. The tradition of gift giving spans faiths and cultures. If you won’t be together in person but you’d still like to share in the joy of the moment, ship your presents early, emphasizing that recipients should NOT open them before the big day. At the designated time, observe their smiles, the twinkle in their eyes, the gasps of surprise and wonder. Real time is better than video, right? Besides, most live video apps allow you to record.

Playing dreidel. Venmo can be used to send prize money to the winner.

An ugly sweater contest. The gallery feature lets you compare all the glorious ugliness in one fell swoop. For extra fun, make your own!

Live performance. Facebook Live, a streaming service, is a great way to broadcast real-time video of a holiday concert, play, poetry reading, cooking demonstration or other performance. Those “in attendance” can make comments that you can respond to and moderate.

Wine tasting. Have identical wine (or cheese, whiskey or other preferred refreshment) samples delivered to participants’ homes in advance. Then the host talks participants through the sampling just as at an in-person event.

Watching a movie together by remote. Streaming services and extensions offer countless options. Teleparty (formerly Netflix Party), TwoSeven and Scener, among others, let you watch movies in sync with your peeps (and share comments in real time, if you desire). Choose from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Disney+, YouTube, Vimeo and more.

Drive-By Celebrations

Lights displays. We’ve always enjoyed driving by or through elaborate seasonal displays, and there’s no reason for that tradition to stop! Whether you prefer do-it-yourself neighborhood decorations or municipal or business extravaganzas, you can “ooh” and “aah” from the safety of your vehicle. Many displays are synced with music. Crank up the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and the Mannheim Steamroller!

Decoration party. Do you have a large tree in your front yard? Invite friends to drop by and add a decoration―especially a handmade one that will make you think of the giver for years to come. You could also make it a giving tree to benefit someone less fortunate.

Giving Thanks and More

Distanced volunteering. Giving time to a worthy cause demonstrates true holiday spirit, and you can do it without leaving the house! Better Homes and Gardens suggests seven ways of volunteering from home, including creating and donating protective masks, becoming a crisis counselor, recording an audiobook for at-home learning, and helping to track the spread of COVID-19. Ask your favorite nonprofit about opportunities for distanced do-gooding.

Showing love for delivery workers. The U.S. Postal Service, UPS, FedEx, Amazon and others work extra hard during the holiday season―even more so during quarantine, when they are also at greater risk. Consider leaving cards, homemade gifts, or prepackaged snacks and bottled waters on your porch for these essential workers. (They also appreciate money!) And let’s continue to express gratitude to our other essential workers!

Donating to a charity. The holidays can be a particularly meaningful time to support your favorite causes (and claim last-minute tax deductions). Charity Navigator suggests “5 Steps to Informed Giving” for maximum effect.

Writing a letter to a military person. Our service members overseas welcome correspondence and gifts, especially around this time of year. Support Our Troops is one outlet for sending letters. The American Red Cross’s Holidays for Heroes program, the USO Wishbook alternative giving catalog and others offer additional ways to support our troops.

Remaining Safe Face to Face

“The little ones.” Holidays have always been for the young and the young at heart, but let’s think about “little ones” in terms of events. With many large-scale gatherings canceled, focus on smaller events in less-crowded settings, like backyards. Limit indoor gatherings to 10 or fewer people, and outdoor ones to no more than 25. Maintain social distancing (no mistletoe this year!) and keep hand sanitizers easily accessible. Maintain a list of guests to make contact tracing easier should someone later be diagnosed with the coronavirus.

Winter wonderland. Weather permitting, schedule your in-person celebration outdoors. If it’s cold enough, build a fire in the fire pit; roast chestnuts; take a sleigh ride (if there’s enough snow); enjoy hot beverages such as hot chocolate, spiced cider or wassail.

Holiday masks. Have bright, colorful fun while observing safety protocols. COVID masks can be found online and elsewhere in a range of festive designs.

However you choose to celebrate, be smart at it. With all these options, there’s no reason for a blue Christmas (or any other holiday)!


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