The holidays aren’t cancelled this year; here’s how to celebrate in a meaningful, albeit different, way.
By Laurel Thompson

Sweater weather is upon us once again, bringing all the fall candles, pumpkin spice and crunchy leaves we could ask for. Holiday specials are running on the TV and Christmas music is playing at the store, but things are looking a bit different this year as we plan virtual get-togethers and socially distanced dinners— something most of us have never dealt with before.

It can be tempting in times like these to compare our current circumstances to better days and focus on the things we can no longer do. Now may not be the best time to visit high-risk family members or splurge on expensive gifts, but one thing’s for sure: the holidays aren’t cancelled this year. Maybe we’ve all just got a case of the COVID-meets-holiday blues.

For licensed clinical social worker Lee Gardner, maintaining a positive attitude as we head into this abnormal holiday season is all about finding ways to regain a sense of control: “These uncertain times are ripe opportunities for development because of the change that we’re all experiencing and also because of the time that we now have at home. Instead of shaming ourselves into thinking we should have been more prepared for something like this, we need to focus our energy on the things we can still do to make this holiday season special.”

So how can we turn things around and celebrate the holidays COVID-style? Grab a hot drink, crank up the “Jingle Bell Rock” and check out these fun, socially-distant ideas to make the last couple months of 2020 the best ones yet.

You don’t have to have friends and family over to decorate the house—in fact, Gardner recommends participating in the holidays to the greatest degree you can from home. “Whatever the holidays typically signify for you, bring that joy into your home like you would in any other year,” he suggests. “Whether that means putting up Christmas lights or decorating a tree, that can really elevate your mood and get you into the holiday spirit. Being able to retain what degree of normalcy we can during this time is going to be really important, and oftentimes that starts with creating a festive environment.”

Many of us have spent the last six months crafting our hearts out anyway, so now is the perfect time to pull up Pinterest, break out the glue guns and put our skills to the test with some DIY holiday decor. Centerpieces and wreaths are a fun way to make use of nature’s free craft supplies— think twigs, pinecones and juniper sprigs—and you can top them off with other items you already have on hand, like ribbons, decorative candles and old Christmas ornaments. And, with so many tutorials on YouTube, there’s no need to attend a guided painting class to create your own festive wall art from reclaimed wood.

Looking for kid-friendly holiday crafts? All you need are some beads and pipe cleaners to make decorative candy canes, and the Internet is full of DIY ornaments if you’re putting up a tree this year. Pinecones are another versatile craft supply to have on hand for your little one to make mini turkeys, pilgrims, Christmas trees—the list goes on. Plus, there are lots of edible craft projects out there that’ll reduce clutter once the holidays are over, like strawberry Santas and pretzel reindeer (thank us later, parents!).

Speaking of getting creative, Gardner recommends preserving old traditions even though it might present a bit of a challenge: “This holiday season, we’ll need to push ourselves a little bit more to engage in the things that we typically experience some degree of pleasure from rather than just giving into that lethargic feeling of not even wanting to try. We’ll have to find new ways to make old traditions work so it doesn’t feel like we can’t engage in the holidays as we normally would.”

While that might mean baking cookies with Grandma over FaceTime or shipping Secret Santa gifts instead of having an in-person gift exchange, the takeaway is that anything can happen if

we’re creative enough to find a socially distanced solution. In Gardner’s words, “Participating in these kinds of old traditions virtually may not be exactly what we prefer, but it reflects the best we can do in the moment and is at least something we can do to help bridge the gap between us and our loved ones. We need to focus on the ways we can adapt rather than fixating on the ways things differ from what we have done in previous years.”

So, what about creating new traditions? When you’re not baking sweet treats, watching your favorite holiday movies or driving to see the lights at night, think of non-conventional activities you can introduce in the age of COVID-19. Explore new ideas like tracking Santa online with your kids or mailing gifts for extended family to open over FaceTime on Christmas day. Set up a group Zoom meeting and sing carols to new guests as you dial them in. Who knows, maybe whatever socially distanced activities you come up with this holiday season will stick around and become new traditions that last for years to come.

Obviously one of the oldest holiday traditions we’ll need to rethink this year is coming together with friends and family to share a home-cooked meal. Perhaps you have a large enough house to seat guests six feet apart, but even that poses challenges when people take off their masks to eat or walk through the house to the bathroom. To be extra safe, Gardner suggests taking advantage of the technology we have at our fingertips: “We’re really lucky to live in a time with such advanced technology, so we can take advantage of FaceTime and Zoom
in addition to making regular phone calls and sending holiday cards to one another. Again, it’s not a perfect solution, but it’s what we need to do to keep one another safe.”

Instead of having a dozen people over for Thanksgiving dinner, set up a Zoom meeting and send guests the recipes beforehand so you can all share the same meal at the same time. Keep it fairly basic so everyone can enjoy the experience no matter how good (or bad) their cooking skills are, and include a recipe from several family members rather than controlling the entire menu yourself. When it comes to drinks, well, BYOB.

After dinner, make sure everyone sticks around for dessert and games that work well over video. Heads Up! is a fun app if you’re a fan of charades (remember to turn off your camera when it’s your turn to guess), and pictionary is another Zoom-friendly classic. Scattergories also works if someone has the game at home to roll the dice and set the timer. If you’re tired of the classics, try Most Likely To, a game where players come up with questions like “Who’s most likely to go on a blind date?” or “Who’s most likely to sing in the shower?” and the person with the most votes wins something fun at the end.

The holidays are all about being grateful for what we have and giving back what we can, which is now more important than ever. According to Gardner, “There’s a way of feeling grateful by making ourselves available for people who aren’t doing so well, and this year has been especially hard for a lot of folks both financially and emotionally. Finding ways to give back during the holidays, even if you yourself are struggling, can put things into perspective and help you realize the ways in which you really are fortunate.”

Volunteering for local organizations like the Food Bank for Larimer County, for example, affords us the ability to do good in a year where our community is experiencing a degree of food insecurity that we’ve never felt before. “We’ve got people pulling up to the Food Bank in brand new cars because six months ago they were doing great,” Gardner says. “The same goes for homeless shelters—we have a lot more people experiencing homelessness right now because they lost their jobs and got evicted, and some of them may very well have been the ones doing the volunteering just last year.”

The sky’s the limit in terms of how we can give back, so pinpoint the causes you care about most and consider where your time, money and talent is best spent. Maybe you don’t have extra cash lying around, but you’ve got lots of yarn and some mean knitting skills that could be used to make hats for cancer patients, or perhaps you have dry goods in your pantry that could be donated to charities in your area. Now might even be a good time to rescue or foster a pet, though many shelters have reported skyrocketing adoption rates since COVID-19 hit and people started working from home (no surprise there).

At the end of the day, it’s important to realize that we are all doing the best that we can and that no one was prepared for the unique challenges 2020 would bring. It’s time to rid ourselves of the notion that we “should” be more productive, that we “should” be in better shape or that we “should” be happier than we currently are—and to stop comparing ourselves to others who seem to be doing better on the outside (or in our social media feeds).

“Comparison ultimately creates more pain because that internal dialogue is usually full of criticism and judgment of ourselves and of others,” Gardner explains. “We need to realize that we’re not going to be at our highest level of functioning during this time, and that we’re not pursuing an absolute standard of perfection. Even under the best of circumstances, the holidays are often a difficult time for people who struggle with mental illness, who don’t have close relationships with their family or who have recently lost a loved one. There is always more to the story than what we see.”

So, take the day off. Go for a run. Cook something. Meditate. FaceTime your family. Talk to a therapist. Now is the time to care for ourselves like we might take care of someone else, because the reality is that we are all humans with real emotions and hardships to overcome. It’s time to think about how we can develop a greater ability to manage this kind of stress that we’ve never experienced before—and for each of us, that will look different this holiday season. Gardner calls it a “formula for well-being” in which we must prioritize the things that bring us a sense of comfort and provide the structure we need when the world around us feels like complete chaos.

Laurel Thompson is a Fort Collins native and CSU alum. When she isn’t writing for local lifestyle publications, you’ll find her soaking up the sun, cooking something delicious, or reading a good book while sipping an iced coffee. To comment on this article, email