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7 New Holiday Traditions That Could Outlast the Virus

Outdoor ornament swap, virtual scavenger hunt and group baking could become annual activities

spinner image Video call on a laptop screen during Christmas. Celebrating Christmas holidays during Coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic concept.
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Tina Beasley brought some good cheer to her Cape Cod, Massachusetts, neighborhood this pandemic holiday season with a socially distanced ornament swap.

She decorated one tree at the end of her diveway with ornaments to take and designated the other as ready for hanging new ones. Then she invited her neighbors to make a trade.

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"I'm just trying to do something positive,” says Beasley, 52. “Just do something fun and magical. You can expand on it.… You can make it a family thing.”

One thing is for sure: This holiday is not going to be about traditions as usual. Big family dinners? Not likely, nor are much-loved events like holiday concerts, worship services and crowded family gift exchanges.

But even in a pandemic, traditions and rituals are important on holidays, says Carolyn Sammon, a psychiatrist based in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.

"Traditions help us move through the seasons,” she says. “They help keep us connected to the people that we've loved and lost. And they also help connect us to the future generations, as we share our traditions.”

How do we get past the grief of what we can't do this season? Acceptance is the first step, Sammon says, allowing ourselves to grieve for what we're losing. Then we can move on to be grateful for what we can do. Remember that holidays are never perfect, she says.

"Every family is going to have rough holidays. Every family is going to have grief holidays, unemployment holidays, cancer holidays,” she adds. “Some years are just going to be rough."

What's most important in holiday traditions?

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To reimagine your holiday, consider the values that drive your most treasured rituals or traditions, says Meg Cox, a journalist, quilter and traditions expert, as well as the author of The Book of New Family Traditions.

"What are the messages we want to communicate?” she asks. “For some families, that's around religion. For some it's also ethnic origin ... and for some it might be political. For some, it might be sports or music.”

Cox, 67, describes herself as a “book person,” so she created a ritual when her son was young: They read a different holiday book every night during Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. She always ends with A Visit From St. Nicholas, also known as The Night Before Christmas.

That idea would easily translate to Zoom, she says. Grandparents could read books with their grandchildren “and then send it to them afterward,” she says.

You can go all out in trying to find ways to go big with traditions this year, or you can keep things simple. But don't turn yourself into knots by trying to please everyone, Sammon says. “It's nice to have all these big over-the-top things, but chocolate-chip pancakes will actually get you pretty far.”

In that spirit, we asked Cox (who also polled her 4,300 Facebook friends) and others for ways to either tweak traditions this year or create new ones. In fact, you might find that this year's make-do becomes next year's tradition. Make sure to brainstorm ideas now, in case you need to share instructions or gifts by snail mail or take a technology tutorial.

1. Reimagine video chats

Video calls are less chaotic, with a focus and a shared activity, Cox says. For example, everyone can light a candle and say what makes them feel grateful. For New Year's Eve, Cox plans to mail party poppers to all her “guests.” Or you can host a scavenger hunt. Send out a list (a concert T-shirt, an outdated canned good, a 1982 penny), then award points when everyone shows off their finds on a video chat.

2. Learn a new game

Use preholiday time to get family and friends up to speed for games such as Quiplash that can be played over Zoom — participants use their phones as controllers. Or this might be the year to learn to play a video game online with an adult child or grandchild. Depending on your climate, you could invest in cornhole boards or other outdoor yard games.

3. Have a dance party

While group singing is difficult over Zoom because of digital delays, dancing is great, Cox says. “You can choreograph it if you're that kind of family that's into a certain kind of dancing — or just let people cut loose.”

4. Connect through food

Cox interviewed a family who bake together long-distance. At a synchronized time, everyone starts making Grandma Betty's apple pie. Grandma Betty then calls each household to check on progress. And you can still eat together. Cox's church does weekly “Zoom Soup,” an online dinner group.

5. Gift with purpose

Support your local stores or look for shops that benefit museums, houses of worship and other nonprofit organizations. Support a local restaurant by ordering a takeout holiday meal. Or don't shop and instead make a donation in someone's name, suggests Robert Alexander, associate pastor for discipleship and mission at the Davidson College Presbyterian Church in Davidson, North Carolina. “Practice alternative gift giving, rather than buying that sweater or book or whatever,” he says. “Really think about how to honor someone you really care about, or do it in memory of someone if you've lost someone dear to you.”

6. Bundle up

As the saying goes, there's no bad weather — only bad clothes. Churches, music groups, botanical gardens and others will hold outside events, and you can visit with neighbors on the stoop or porch. The key word is connection, says Karen Foster, senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Nevada in Reno. “If that is gathering outside in cold weather around a firepit, bundled up for 20 or 30 minutes or whatever we can do, that is better than nothing,” she says.

7. Spread the joy

Want an anticipatory reminder to reach out to others? Create an Advent-style calendar with a charitable idea for the last two weeks of December, Foster suggests. Tasks could be as simple as a card or phone call or as complicated as organizing a volunteer event. “You know, it's a time for it not to be all about us,” she says. “But for it to be about the people who are having a harder time than we are, and seeing what we can do.”

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