“This is the season when people of all faiths and cultures are pushing back against the planetary darkness. We string bulbs, ignite bonfires, and light candles. And we sing.” —Anita Diamant
The holiday season is upon us, and navigating tradition with safety during the pandemic has proven challenging. The current dramatic surge of COVID-19 infections has resulted in a return to greater restrictions and fewer opportunities to safely meet with family and friends. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended avoiding inside gatherings that include anyone outside our immediate household. An alternative is to gather outdoors, but the weather in colder climes makes this more difficult. This reduced ability to gather with loved ones may make this winter seem particularly dark. Yet, we are resilient, and, as we are reminded, this is a season that is about bringing light into darkness at its core.
Traditional winter holidays
Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish celebration marking the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees after their victory over the Syrians. Upon entering the Temple for battle, the Maccabees immediately relit the ner tamid (eternal light) with a small amount of oil that should only have lasted a day. Miraculously, it lasted eight days. Celebrants mark this by lighting one candle on each of the eight nights of the holiday.
Kwanzaa is an African American celebration of family and community that lasts from December 26 to January 1. The holiday honors seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. The Candlelighting Ceremony is central to Kwanzaa and takes place at time when all family members are gathered. Seven candles — representing the seven principles — are placed in the Kinara (candleholder). Beginning on the 26th, one candle is lit each day.
Diwali is a five-day Hindu festival beginning on the 15th day of the month of Kartika (sometime during October or November on the Gregorian calendar). Also known as the “row of lights” it symbolizes good triumphing over evil and light over darkness and is celebrated with music, dance and lights.
Advent is the season in which many Christian denominations prepare for the birth of Jesus Christ with prayers of anticipation and for peace and hope. Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas. Part of the observance centers on the Advent wreath, which has five candles; one lit on each of the four Sundays and one in the center to be lit on Christmas Day.
The Winter Solstice is the first day of winter and the longest night of the year. Many of the elements of modern winter holidays are drawn from traditions in past celebrations of the solstice. Numerous cultures continue to celebrate this day with various rituals, including the lighting of candles, bonfires, or the burning of a Yule log to celebrate the eventual return of the sun following the coming time of darkness.
Celebrations that center on light span the globe. They mark the eventual return of the sun, new beginnings and the embrace of family. Amidst the pandemic that has dominated this year, it is more important than ever to find ways to keep those celebrations alive. Here are four things to consider when planning your holidays.
While we have become more accustomed to limiting our social activities, it is important to recognize that this year’s holiday experience may be quite different than years gone by. Gatherings (if any) are much smaller and more subdued. Lean into the difference. Plan for the change.
Order in — One of my brothers usually hosts our grand Thanksgiving feast. This year, because we are honoring the recommendation to limit gatherings, each family will host its own meal. As I am a vegetarian and no one in the family trusts my ability to cook a turkey, I have ordered our turkey dinner from a local market so that my husband can get his fill of turkey and gravy while I prepare (and enjoy) my signature side dishes and desserts.
Drive-by desserts — Although we will not share a meal together, I am preparing my father-in-law’s delicious pumpkin custard pie and bringing it to the assisted living facility where he resides. We can gather outside his bedroom window for a few moments, enjoy a piece of pie and savor the precious time we have together.
Zoom gathering — While we all have Zoom fatigue, we are still so fortunate to have the opportunity to see loved ones in “real-time.” Zoom during your mealtime. FaceTime while taking an after-meal walk. Enjoy a phone call during coffee and dessert. Connect with your loved ones.
Now, more than ever it is important to connect to that which solidifies our identity and heritage. Traditions matter!
Decorate — Holiday decorations are part of the experience and this year we are motivated to deck the halls sooner in the season. Trees are trimmed. Outdoor lights are hung. Neighborhoods are having decorating contests to ignite neighborhood engagement. Host your own virtual tree trimming party. Create an environment that welcomes celebration and holiday cheer.
Create socially distanced adventures — What activities are traditions in your family? Do you sing holiday songs? Do you have a jigsaw puzzle around which family gathers informally, placing puzzle pieces while sharing stories together? Borrowed from a creative neighbor of mine, I have initiated a Family Jigsaw Puzzle Frenzy. I sent each family the same puzzle. When everyone has received it, we will join on Zoom and officially begin the frenzy of puzzle making. Over the holidays, family members chronicle their progress with pictures and videos. Awards for the first puzzle completed, the last savored, the funniest photo or most memorable puzzle moment will be presented. The most important part of this endeavor is that families recognize that while we cannot be physically together, we can still engage in merriment together while apart. Be creative!
Cook holiday foods — Every year I make my mother-in-law’s famous gingerbread recipe for my husband and his family. She has long been deceased, but this recipe is reminiscent of a time when my mother-in-law was present, the family was all together, and the holiday magic was infused with the aromatic spices. This year, care packages of these yummy cookies will be gifted as a reminder of a simpler time and in hope of our gatherings soon to come.
Make music — Music soothes and inspires. Turn on those holiday tunes and let them ring. Sing out loud. Zoom in family and friends for a holiday sing-along. Do drive by caroling in your neighborhood. Allow the magic of music to be part of your holidays.
Connect — This is the year for holiday cards and letters. Bring out beautiful stationary. Write the annual family letters. Slip a teabag into a card and invite the receiver to share teatime with you. If you would prefer not to send paper cards, consider ecards or video greetings. Call people you think about but have not talked to in eons. Text “just thinking of you” random messages.
The holidays are a perfect time for reflection and contemplation. Follow nature’s lead and allow yourself time to journey within.
Meditate — Take time to quiet your mind and experience stillness. Breath in the calm and exhale anything that is not serving you. Create an internal space for the holiday light to shine brightly.
Be in gratitude — Cultivating an attitude of gratitude is powerful. This year has offered many challenges. Despite these obstacles, are there things for which you are thankful? For example, in these trying times, I am incredibly grateful for the comfort of my home, food on my table and a warm bed at night. Additionally, as a counselor, I have been able to resort to telehealth and continue to see my clients without fail. I am incredibly grateful for the work that I am privileged to do.
Journal — This is a great season to take pen to paper and write down thoughts from the year. Review the challenges, perhaps the losses and honor your emotions about these concerns. Note how resilient you are to have survived, possibly thrived the difficulties that 2020 has presented. Describe how you have navigated this unprecedented year and savor your resiliency.
Keep the faith
The holidays are also a time to lean into one’s beliefs and understandings around hope, peace, and community.
Read inspirational words — Minimize listening to and watching information that promotes fear and division. Focus on literature and media that are encouraging and unifying. Sacred texts, inspirational podcasts, positive and hopeful movies can plant seeds of hope and renewal.
Pay it forward — Alfred Adler knew the value of social interest in overall well-being. Consider sending a care package to first responders. Order a meal to be delivered to local emergency room staff. Pay for a stranger’s coffee in the drive-through line. For example, I have taken home-baked cookies and treats to the local fire and police departments and leave Starbucks gift cards for the postal and delivery workers over the holiday. It does not need to be costly. Volunteer at an animal shelter. Randomly rake your neighbor’s front lawn. Shovel the snow (yes, we are already seeing snow in some areas) from the sidewalk in front of another’s home. Create a neighborhood swap by setting up a table in front of your yard and inviting neighbors to take or borrow your used books, puzzles or games.
Be the change — If you want peace, promote unity and connectedness. Invite conversations with those who differ in your beliefs or understandings. Listen with an open mind and heart and hold the space for differences to be tolerated. If you want hope, cultivate a positive presence with inspirational words and actions. Sponsor a family or child in need. Use your personal power to advocate for those whose voices may be marginalized.
This year has been difficult. It has posed many obstacles to endure. However, it has also allowed us to tap into our skillset around patience and innovation. It has allowed opportunities for us to demonstrate kindness and generosity. It has promoted the development of resiliency. This holiday season, use those skills to ignite the flame of hope and love. To quote author Hamilton Wright Mabie, “Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.”
From my family to yours, Happy Holidays!
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Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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