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Zoom Last Year, Hugs This Year: What it Means to Celebrate the Holidays

Emotional gatherings after vaccinations make celebrations even more special

A woman welcomes a family member in her kitchen while preparing a Thanksgiving dinner.
Alamy Stock Photo

Last year when COVID-19 kept many from celebrating with family and friends, Ruth E. Thaler-Carter accepted an invitation to share Thanksgiving with neighbors in a condo upstairs.

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“It was really nice to be included, but it wasn’t nearly the same thing as a family gathering,” says Thaler-Carter, 68, a freelance writer and editor in St. Louis. Now that she's vaccinated, this year will be much different. Her youngest brother is flying into St. Louis from Israel with his wife and younger daughter. The four of them will travel to New Mexico to spend Thanksgiving with another brother and family of all ages.

The reunion will be extra special because Thaler-Carter will finally meet her 18-month-old grandniece, who is thriving despite being born with a heart condition. “From the photos that I've seen, she’s a very healthy, happy little thing. And to be able to see her and celebrate the fact that she’s fine just adds to the whole emotional impact of the reunion,” she sats. “It promises to be a wonderful get-together.”

Caption: COVID-19 prevented Ruth Thaler-Carter from celebrating holidays with family last year, but this year she will be gathering with relatives.
COVID-19 prevented Ruth Thaler-Carter from celebrating holidays with family last year, but this year she will be gathering with relatives.
Courtesy Ethan Alderman

Now that nearly 60 percent of the American population has been vaccinated against the coronavirus, many families are gearing up for a long-overdue holiday season together, eager to create new memories.

“There's this collective sigh of relief that someone is telling them to do what humans do best — connect physically with another person in the room,” says Jennifer M. Thompson, a licensed clinical social worker in Rochester, New York. “Not everybody, but more people typically feel comfortable exchanging energy in live spaces.”

‘I just miss that spontaneity’

For Fred Mandell, a 79-year-old leadership development consultant in Lynnfield, Massachusetts, the Thanksgiving holiday last year consisted of an on-and-off 90-minute Zoom session with relatives.

This Turkey Day, he and his wife, Karen, are driving to Pittsford, New York, to be with their oldest daughter and her two children. Their other daughter, Becky, and Becky's husband are also driving from Massachusetts to Pittsford with their two kids. Mandell’s sister-in-law and her wife are also joining them.

“It will be three generations — the entire contingent,” says Mandell, who is looking forward to the “physical hugs, warmth and smells of the holiday” that a virtual Thanksgiving couldn't deliver.

While Zoom is well-organized, with everyone “having their little place on the screen,” he says, “when you're in person, it's free-flowing and chaotic. And I just miss that spontaneity. The quality of the experience — the depth, the richness — of being in the same space with somebody is just very, very different.”

Connecting through the senses

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The full-sensory experience of an in-person holiday means a lot to the brain. “For example, our sense of smell is in our subconscious — in the background as we go through our daily life — but our brain is registering the smell of things and creating emotional and meaningful reactions around that,” says psychiatrist Chris Aiken, M.D., a director of the Mood Treatment Center in North Carolina and editor in chief of "The Carlat Psychiatry Report" newsletter.

That's because our olfactory nerves — the nerves that pick up on scents — go straight to the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with emotional functioning. Human touch is important to the brain as well, and more widely appreciated than the sense of smell, Aiken says. “People recover faster from illnesses if they have more physical contact with others."

Psychologists call the sense of being with another person "social presence,and the brain recognizes different levels of this presence: A telephone call is better than no contact, Zoom is better than a telephone call, and being in the same space as another human is better than Zoom.

That said, the increased use of Zoom, FaceTime, text messages and other technology since the pandemic began has been awkward for many older adults. “It has been almost like walking into a dark forest” for those “forced to connect in ways that are unfamiliar,” Thompson says. “It's so important for people to connect in ways that feel comfortable.”

Meanwhile, the older we get, the more memories we collect, and the holiday season — a time of gratitude — is a prime occasion for revisiting them.

For older adults, “having physical interaction with loved ones can really help them recall years past,” says Michael Pipich, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Greenwood Village, Colorado. “And if it's not the best of times, especially if they've lost someone recently, that physical interaction can really help carry them through that grief.”

As for Thaler-Carter, the only two holidays her family observes are Passover — because her parents were Holocaust survivors — and Thanksgiving. “So not being able to do a family Thanksgiving has just been very hard,” she notes, especially now that her parents are gone. She anticipates that “this is going to be one of our best Thanksgivings ever. I’m so excited. I wish it were tomorrow.”