Navigating holidays in a pandemic, again

Experts from Penn’s Center for Public Health Initiatives and Positive Psychology Center offer six tips for making the holiday season joyful, fun, and safe.

A piece of pumpkin pie on a serving spatula, a dollop of whipped cream on top.

Holiday season 2021 is upon us. Unlike this time a year ago, more than 195 million people in the United States are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 28 million 5- to 11-year-olds can now receive the shots. 

Despite those steps, the pandemic is still with us. “We’ll never be able to completely eliminate COVID-19,” says Hillary Nelson, director of education for Penn’s Center for Public Health Initiatives. “But we want to reduce its threat. In public health, the most important facet is reducing harm.” 

That pertains to physical health, to shifting the virus from one that turns the world on its head to one that exists mostly in the background, that we can protect against with a vaccine. That also pertains to mental health, says James Pawelski, director of education at Penn’s Positive Psychology Center

“Last year at this time, we were looking forward to the vaccine. There was this sense of a light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, that worldview doesn’t seem quite so accurate anymore,” he says. “We’re in this for the long haul. We’ve moved from the acute phase to the chronic phase.”

That backdrop can make the holidays—often already fraught with expectation—feel even more challenging. But they don’t have to be. Nelson and Pawelski offer six tips for making them joyful, fun, and safe.

1. Understand your risk tolerance

As has been true during the whole pandemic, this will differ from person to person and family to family.

“Because there are unvaccinated grandchildren in my family, I don’t go to restaurants where I would take off my mask inside to eat. I wear an N95 mask whenever I’m inside in a public place, and I don’t do anything that’s considered a high-risk activity,” Nelson says. “Others who don’t have vulnerable people in their life may have a different risk calculation.”

2. Be open and frank

Maybe that means telling family members who are ready to resume big celebrations that you aren’t, or explaining that to do so, you’ll want certain steps taken: vaccinations for anyone eligible, mask-wearing, limiting social engagements leading up to the get-together, whatever lends you a level of comfort.

“I can give you an example from my own life,” Nelson says. “Prior to last year, I would participate in a Thanksgiving with more than a half-dozen families, more than 30 people coming from four different states. That’s just too many people.” This year, she’ll be eating with fewer than a dozen. “We’ve decreased our risk just by decreasing the number of people,” she says.

3. Practice self-compassion

Pawelski describes this concept, cultivated by a researcher named Kristin Neff, as including self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. “People often think of self-compassion as being weak,” he says. “But actually, it’s really an effective coping mechanism. It doesn’t turn you into milquetoast. It prepares you for being able to take action against what you’re facing.”

It doesn’t mean ignoring or skipping the family stuff either. Pawelski suggests striking a balance, carving out both “me time” and family time. “Sometimes we think about family or community or others in ways that just aren’t sustainable for ourselves,” he says. “By being intentional about self-compassion, that can help us enjoy a situation more ourselves and be there more fully for others.”

4. Think beyond yourself

Volunteering is a great example, says Nelson, who has worked at several COVID vaccination clinics her Penn Medicine colleagues have put on, including one at an elementary school that vaccinated more than 300 children. “If you just get caught in your own inner world vortex and forget there’s an external world, that can sap your well-being,” Pawelski says. “Try something that takes you out of your own absorption.”

5. Embrace arts and music

Recently, Pawelski conducted research analyzing people who used arts and culture to cope with the pandemic. From this nationally representative survey, he and colleagues deduced that those who did so were more satisfied, optimistic, and felt greater meaning, purpose, and a sense of belonging.

“Based on this research, I would say make time for arts and culture. Listen to music. Sing. You don’t have to be Pavarotti to enjoy it. Pull out your old piano books,” Pawelski says. “Memorize a poem. It’s kind of a lost art, and it can be super calming. Make time to draw or paint. Take a photo and share it with others at a site like Seeing Happy. If you feel like it and can do so safely, go to an art museum. Just make time.” 

6. Reframe what makes the holidays ‘special’

Families often put pressure on one big moment—the Thanksgiving meal, for instance—without valuing the small moments that preceded it. It’s a concept psychiatrist Samantha Boardman calls cotton candy for the soul, says Pawelski. “These activities are empty calories that feel good when you do them for a little while, but if you keep doing them they give you a bellyache,” he says. “They’re easy in the moment, but they don’t give us vitality.”

So, Thanksgiving dinner may go as planned, but it also may not. Do a dry turkey and arguments over dinner ruin the whole experience? To avoid that, Pawelski recommends reframing to focus on the everyday interactions and moments. “Make sure that the small instances, the brief encounters with a family member spark vitality for both of you,” he says. “They can give us small bursts of energy.”

Hillary Nelson is an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, director of the Master of Public Health program at the Perelman School of Medicine, and director of education for the Center for Public Health Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania.

James Pawelski is a professor of practice and director of education in the Positive Psychology Center in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also director of the Humanities and Human Flourishing Project, which investigates connections between engagement in the arts and humanities and human flourishing.