If this was any other year, Ariel Pitman would be spending Christmas at her parents’ house in Ohio or convene with extended family in South Carolina. But that was then. Like so many other Americans, Pitman is opting out of her usual holiday gatherings this year. As is often the case with holiday plans—and even more so during a pandemic and never-ending election—the decision is stirring up a heady cocktail of emotions.
“Most of my family is very conservative,” Pitman says. “[They] go to church every Sunday. They vote Republican.” Her parents were Democrats when she was growing up, but things changed when Trump came along in 2015. “My dad became a fan of Trump,” she says. “It has affected his opinion on COVID-19 as well. He’s not one of these people who believes it’s a hoax. He believes in science. He believes in being safe. But he does think, ‘Well, you can’t destroy the country and the economy. People [have] got to get back to work. We just got to start living our lives again.'”
This month, Pitman’s parents are moving from Ohio to South Carolina, where she lives. “For the first time in years, I’m going to have my parents and both sides of my family all in the same state,” she says. But with that proximity comes pressure. When her dad asked if Pitman and her fiancé would come up for the holidays, she wondered for a moment if they could get tested beforehand and safely see her parents.
But then he mentioned that her aunt would be hosting her usual holiday gathering on Christmas Eve, and they were planning to attend. Would she join? “I said, ‘No, I don’t think that’s a good idea,'” she recalls saying. “He got a little quiet. And he said, ‘Well, everyone has to make a decision for themselves, I guess.'”
After nearly nine months of relative isolation, the holiday season would have been a welcome reprieve for many people. Instead, countless Americans are left making tough choices, as they weigh family expectations and the comfort of home against the troubling onset of a new wave of COVID-19 cases. For months, experts have worried that the holidays would drive up COVID-19 rates, as college students flew home and other people flocked to family reunions. Amid a new COVID-19 surge, the stakes are now even higher: Last week, the U.S. crossed 180,000 new cases in a day, and a number of states have set new records for both caseloads and hospitalizations this month. Public health officials have repeatedly stressed the risks of gathering in person over the holidays, and in its most recent guidance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged people not to travel for the holidays.
Still, during a year punctuated by so much loss, giving up time with family feels especially painful for some Americans. The pandemic has already disrupted so many milestones, from weddings to baby showers and birthdays. For people such as Pitman, Christmas is the rare occasion when she gets to see her extended family. “I have lived away from my parents and my other family basically since college,” she says. “I do look forward to the holidays because it’s the one time of year I get to spend time with them and see them. While we might disagree on so many fundamental things, I still do love them.”
Like many others, Pitman’s family has also had to grieve in isolation this year. “We lost my grandmother unexpectedly, earlier this year,” she says. “It was during the main restrictions and lockdown, and so we were never really able to have a proper funeral for her—like so many other families. And that was extremely difficult to process for all of us. And most days, it still is. So I think these holidays, especially with this entire year, are far more loaded with emotion than any other year. So I feel like I’m being the bad guy.”
Pitman isn’t alone. Whatever the circumstances, the holidays are particularly fraught this year. “There’s a lot of guilt,” says psychotherapist Alana Kaufman, the founder and director of the Talk Suite. Some parents don’t feel comfortable with their kids coming home. “I think there’s a general rule: We sort of all defer to the least comfortable person,” she says. “And so we have to honor that.” But that has also left people who don’t have a place to go for the holidays feeling “really isolated or alone,” she says.
Kaufman encourages people to remember there’s an end in sight. “Especially with the news of the vaccine, I feel very confident to say this is very time-limited,” she says. “This isn’t going to be forever.” But she also stresses the importance of considering your mental health, particularly after months of isolation, and seeking professional help or finding people to talk to about feelings of loneliness or guilt. She adds that people can find a way to celebrate with a few others, if it’s at all possible to do so safely. “Think of creating for the holidays your corona crew,” she says. “Make it less than 10 people who all follow the same rules and get together as safely as possible. Again, nothing is 100%. But our mental health is important.” Even taking a socially distanced walk or—if you feel comfortable—doing volunteer work can help make the holidays a bit less lonely, Kaufman says.
Some people who can’t be with their families during the holidays are trying to find creative ways to feel connected to them. Writer Rachel Syme has always gone home to Albuquerque, New Mexico, during the holiday season. “In New Mexico, the tradition is to put out paper lanterns,” she says. “And [we] either go to Santa Fe or to downtown Albuquerque to walk around and see this sort of festival of lights. It’s beautiful, and everything in the air smells like cedar and sage and piñon and cinnamon and chocolate.”
Since her mom is Jewish, Syme’s family celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah. One family tradition, started by her great grandfather, is a Christmas Eve slideshow of family photos dating back to the 1950s. This year, her family will be doing the slideshow over Zoom and might even hire a quiz master to put together a virtual trivia night. “One of the nice things is just being together—just the physical ability to see people that you love and eat their food and have the cocktails and smell the candles and feel the vibe of the house,” she says. “That’s something I look forward to every year. But I’m also not that sad about it because I think we’re doing the right thing. And I think that missing one year of that is so much better if it means that we can have many years to come.”
In the meantime, Syme is thinking about how she can make Christmas in New York feel more festive, whether that means walking around Central Park with hot chocolate or getting her own tree. She also put together a gift exchange for the holiday season, which has already drawn more than 1,000 participants and was inspired by a pen pal service she launched earlier in the pandemic that now has 7,000 members. “People are so desperate for connection,” she says. “And I think that the pandemic brought that out.”
Of course, for many people, the holidays can bring up all sorts of complex feelings even during normal, non-pandemic times. “Sometimes this kind of crisis can trigger past traumas, and it just gets exacerbated,” Kaufman says. “If people are experiencing higher than normal anxiety, depression, [or a] sense of isolation or loneliness, know you’re not alone, because the whole world is going through this. And also, maybe be curious: Are there other emotions attached?” The holiday season can induce stress and pressure in even the least dysfunctional of families (if there is such a thing).
For Pitman and other Americans who are politically at odds with their families, there’s the potential for clashes over politics. “The truth is everything is political,” she says. “Every time I go over to one of these events, I’m nervous about a topic coming up where there’s going to be a discussion. I can bite my tongue, but I do not have a poker face. And it’s hard because you do feel a responsibility to speak up and correct misinformation.”
Those who lack familial support or come from nontraditional families, on the other hand, may have always had a complicated relationship with the holidays. “We’ve all been told that everybody spends holidays the same way,” says Lane Moore, the author of How to Be Alone: If You Want to And Even If You Don’t. “Even if it’s a little bit stressful, everybody still says I love you at the end; everybody still feels really safe and close. And that’s just not true for so many of us.” The assumption that everyone goes home for the holidays—or would if they could—can itself feel isolating. “When I go on social media on the holidays, I make a point now of posting on Instagram [to say], ‘Hey, if this is a hard day for you, you’re not alone,'” she says. “I do that every year now, because on everybody else’s social media, you see people trying to sell you on the idea that they have the perfect family.”
Moore wonders if this year might give people the opportunity to reflect on their own relationship to the holidays and be more mindful about the decisions they make. “I think a lot of people have used this quarantine time, voluntarily or not, to really unpack a lot of past trauma or situations that weren’t super healthy,” she says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if more and more people who couldn’t go home for COVID-19 reasons are like, ‘Oh, it was actually a lot better when I didn’t go home.'”
To those who are spending the holidays alone or without family, Moore recommends embracing your own needs. “We’ve turned the holidays into this day of almost martyrdom,” she says. “One of the things that I really advocate is doing whatever you want to do.” For Moore, that might be as simple as eating what she wants or watching a favorite TV show. “I really just focus on: What do I want today? What do I need? And it’s different every year, but I can’t recommend that enough.”