One of the greatest cruelties of COVID-19 is how, at a time when we need each other most, staying away from loved ones is often the best way to show them how much you care.

That counterintuitive fact is hard to wrap our minds around. But as COVID-19 cases and deaths reach all-time highs almost everywhere across the U.S., experts are urging folks to help stop the spread by not negating public health safety rules over the holidays in order to gather and celebrate together.

For the sake of the people you love, as well as the most vulnerable in your community, do NOT think of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, or any other upcoming major holiday as your get-out-of-jail-free card to forget about the pandemic. Per CDC guidelines, “The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year is to celebrate with people in your household,” which goes for all other winter holidays, too.

But the holidays aren’t canceled. Celebrating the holidays alone, virtually, or with only the members of your household (whether roommates or immediate family) just means you might need to get more creative. We’re here to help with that.

This holiday season, everyone will need to rethink what truly matters about holiday gatherings — or rather, what exactly it is we love about them. We won’t be able to safely gather under one roof to share a feast. 

But a pandemic can’t stop you from showing gratitude, sharing love, and just getting plain weird with friends and family.

1. To turkey or not to turkey?

That is the question.

Seriously, though. Cooking a whole ass dead bird that typically feeds a small village only for yourself or a few others sounds completely impractical. Yet for some people, things like a turkey or Christmas ham — despite all its polarizing flaws — are non-negotiable, essential to what makes Thanksgiving what it is.

But let’s be real: You probably wouldn’t even know what to do with a 30-pound frozen dead bird anyway. It’s a slice of finicky meat to master even in the best of times. When you’re without the family’s designated Turkey Handler, it’s almost guaranteed to be a waste of time, money, and energy. Sure, you could bake smaller sections of a turkey, like just the legs, but will that truly scratch your festive itch when you’re really craving the excesses of a Thanksgiving turkey?

Instead, a friend suggested over Twitter that you center your holiday meal around, “something weird that you wouldn’t do normally. Buy a duck, a rabbit, or one of those fancy heritage chickens.” Or, you could always just buy more practical turkey alternatives, which we’ll get to later on. You can even take this opportunity to try some, *gasp* fake meat. If you do opt for a whole turkey and have more leftovers than usual, package it up for donations (we’ll also get to that later).

She also warned that folks shouldn’t underestimate how much food a full pie is, too, and those leftovers don’t stay good for long. So try out festive dessert alternatives that freeze well, like this recipe of pecan pie truffles.

In general, the best mindset to be in this holiday season is that — it won’t be the same, but that’s actually an opportunity to…

2. Create your own new traditions

During normal years, deviating from longstanding family holiday traditions can be scary, if not an all-out declaration of war from grandma’s perspective. But this year feel at liberty to go off the beaten path by trying new customs, recipes, and activities.

Usually, doing the same traditions on the holidays is a comfort — some safe familiarity to ground our otherwise hectic lives. But we’ve all been in varying degrees of quarantine for months now, and the last thing any of us need is more of the same shit we’re familiar with. 

So try something bold and outside of your comfort zone, whether that’s a group activity (more on that below) or new recipes (see above). If you’re spending the holidays with roommates or friends you wouldn’t normally spend them with, swap family gathering traditions, regardless of whether or not those traditions are related to the specific holiday you’re celebrating.

It’s rona times, baby. No rules! (Except the ones in place for public safety.)

You can finally learn that family secret to making the best apple pie you've ever had in your life on your own.
You can finally learn that family secret to making the best apple pie you’ve ever had in your life on your own.

3. Cook together over virtual hangout 

Making a big meal together is one of the most central bonding experiences of big holiday gatherings. Social distancing doesn’t have to change that. Even if you’re not spending the holidays with your family, set up a virtual hangout to cook together, whether it’s a small or big group.

This is especially important for folks who have to stay away from grandparents. If you think you’ll be having a hard time of it, just imagine being part of a high-risk group like the elderly who’ve been especially cooped up, isolated, and afraid.  Even if they’re not cooking anything themselves, ask high-risk family members to join you, and maybe even teach you their trademark family recipe.

Normally, we wouldn’t dare attempt to make a friend or family member’s beloved signature holiday dish ourselves. But this is the year to learn, ensuring that their trade secrets live on through you.

4. Make festive drinks and cocktails instead of massive amounts of food

If you’re too overwhelmed by the notion of cooking or baking anything, you can still get in on that homey DIY action. 

Look up recipes for themed, seasonal cocktails (or mocktails), and alcoholic drinks. We highly recommend making a batch of your own homemade warm hard cider, for example, which is actually a lot easier to make than you’d think — a low effort way to spruce up something delicious, festive, and cozy all on your own.

You’ll probably have leftovers from the batch (at least hopefully). But most booze doesn’t go bad, so it won’t be a waste. If there is still too much leftover, make dead drops to nearby friends and family (when you’re sober enough to drive or walk over, that is).

4. If you’re going to do a big virtual hangout, plan ahead

I know we all want to eject the word “Zoom” into the goddamn sun and never hear it again at this point. But we’re not talking about a virtual company meeting that could’ve been an email.

Despite the likelihood that elderly folks will be most resistant to it, getting together virtually will be really important for the well-being of high-risk family members. But don’t treat a virtual holiday gathering as if it’s any more casual than an IRL gathering. Make sure someone with the know-how, time, patience, and organization skills takes on the task of being the designated “host” in charge (and be sure that person gets ample praise and gratitude, and help). Zoom is lifting its 40-minute meeting limit for free calls on Thanksgiving Day. You can also use other video conferencing software, like Google Meet, which recently added backgrounds to mimic Zoom.

Send the RSVP — whether calendar invites, e-vite, or *gasp* maybe even a physical invitation through the mail — now. Get a feel from everyone about how much time they’d want to spend on a virtual family or friend hangout, and ask them to be totally honest. Look up guides for planning virtual events (and take a cue from those who celebrated Passover over Zoom when the pandemic was still fresh). Schedule designated time slots (with flexibility) around different activities: meal-time, movie-time (there are multiple ways to watch remotely together), game timeniche Powerpoint presentation time (more on that below) so people can pop in and out when they want.  

It’ll be tough, but if teachers have been able to chorale classes of kindergarteners over Zoom for months now, you can do this.

Be sure to designate a Zoom Training Day meeting or call ahead of the virtual holiday gathering to help tech-averse or illiterate relatives get set up and acclimated (knowledge of the mute button is key). Again, some will likely resist the whole idea, so come prepared with talking points on why virtual hangouts can be just as meaningful as real-life ones and why we need to stay apart this year.

Expect all that meticulous planning to go to shit and everything to descend into total chaos. Take comfort in the fact that, even during a pandemic, some things never change.

Honestly, having a mute button for your problematic uncle probably isn't the worst thing.
Honestly, having a mute button for your problematic uncle probably isn’t the worst thing.

5. But also, it’s OK to skip the Zoom holiday hangout altogether

Listen, Zoom fatigue is real. Don’t shame yourself or exhausted friends and family for not wanting to participate in a virtual holiday hangout, for whatever reason. 

If you’re the planner of said virtual gathering, I promise having one less attendee will help more than hurt. Or, if you’re the one who wants to die a thousand deaths at the thought of another Zoom celebration, listen to yourself, respect what you need, and communicate to the planner why it’s not personal.

This is going to be a hard time for everyone. So, in general, be extra understanding of how everyone copes in their own way.

And, hey, if you really want to convince a resistant friend or family member, send them a non-pressuring text with all your love and a video of everyone having a grand old time in the virtual holiday hangout. FOMO can be a hell of a motivator!

6. Decorate your space for the holidays anyway

A festive atmosphere goes a long way in a celebration, even if you’re alone or without family. Showing you care by making the effort of creating a fun, seasonal, welcoming environment is a big part of what makes holiday gatherings feel so special during regular years. 

Put the money you’d normally spend on buying a whole turkey or flying home into your abode instead. Get festive-smelling candles to fill the house with the scent of pumpkin spice, pine — whatever you associate with the holiday. Our olfactory senses are most tied to memory, so candles can really help wrap you in the joy of past gatherings.

Buy yourself a festive outfit to wear, even if you have nowhere to go. Hell, buy your pet a themed costume! You’ll get to post it on social media regardless, which is why we usually buy those anyway. You can even send the same holiday-themed sweaters or accessories to all your loved ones because neither distance nor coronavirus can stop your matching holiday fit game.

You don’t have to go traditional with your decorations, either. Find the holiday’s equivalent of Halloween 2020s reigning king, the Large Home Depot Skeleton — something so bizarre and ungodly that it embodies the vibes of this hell year.

7. There are plenty of alternatives to making your own meal

No holiday police are gonna come to your house and arrest you for not putting a ton of effort into cooking your own meal. Actually, you might even be helping out businesses that really need it by choosing not to.

This is goddamn America, where money can buy you literally anything, including holiday cheer!

Support your favorite local restaurant doing Thanksgiving dinner meal take out. Just be sure to give them ample time to plan by pre-ordering as soon as possible, and always be kind if there’s a hiccup (they’re doing their best). Give them a generous tip, too, because isn’t giving thanks what the holidays are all about? Alternatively, many meal subscription boxes are doing special holiday kits, both pre-made or ready-to-cook if you want to put in a Lil effort.

If you’re on a budget, we highly recommend the holiday fixings from Trader Joe’s (or similar grocery stores), where they’ll be stocked with seasonal delights like Thanksgiving turkey slices, cranberry sauce, pre-made turkey-cranberry salad. Mashable illustrator and art maven Vicky Leta highly recommends making yourself something reminiscent of a “Thanksgiving leftover sandwich,” combining brie with that seasonal salad on their Tuscan Pane Italian bread.

The moral of the story is you don’t have to put blood, sweat, and tears into eating well on the holidays.

8. Volunteer to help your fellow humans and animals 

For all the talk of holidays being a time of giving, volunteering isn’t usually what we think of as a festive tradition. Now’s the time to change that. More than ever, volunteering to help each other out can be one of the most life-affirming ways to lift your spirits — a reminder that none of us are in this alone and that we don’t need to travel far to find family.

Connect with a local food bank, soup kitchen, a shelter for the unhoused, mutual aid organization, or animal shelter and rescue. They’ve needed to drastically change the way they do their holiday operations, which means they’ll need as much help as possible in ensuring those run smoothly. There are also tons of ways you can safely help the elderly specifically, those who will be going through it this time of year. 

Also, don’t treat your own hardships or personal love of a holiday like Thanksgiving as an excuse to forget that, for others, it’s a day that celebrates their own people’s genocide. Focus your volunteer, donation, and support efforts on organizations dedicated to the rights and care of Indigenous folks, like the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance. Whenever possible, make those donations monthly.

Also, find out whether someone’s already organized a community fridge or pantry in your neighborhood, and if not, be that person. Organize a hangout with friends and family (whether virtual or in-person, risk conditions permitting, such as doing it outside while wearing masks and sitting apart) where you make care kits for unhoused neighbors together while boozing, picnicking, and having fun (with everyone BYO-ing their snacks). Animal shelters and rescue organizations often need folks to foster, so you wouldn’t have to spend the holidays alone at all.

If you’re not comfortable leaving your house to help, there are plenty of ways to do so virtually. Holidays are a particularly hard time for those struggling with mental health, for example, so signing up for training as a volunteer to crew suicide-prevention and other emergency hotlines is a great option.

9. Gift friends, family, neighbors your signature holiday dish or treat

For some of us, the best part of a holiday gathering is getting to flex your cooking and baking skills in front of everyone — oh, and nourishing your loved ones with those skills too, I guess. You can still do that this year, and even show off whatever new culinary or gardening skills you’ve mastered since the beginning of quarantine (finally, a purpose for all that homemade sourdough). 

It’ll just require a bit more planning than usual.

Check-in on friends, family, and others in your community who might need homemade food the most, whether because they’re struggling financially or emotionally. Send them your delicious holiday cheer, whether through the mail (bakers, certain goods travel better than others) or dead drops to those who live nearby.

10. There are plenty of festive activities to do safely, together or apart

After dealing with eight months and many holidays indoors, parents — heroes that they are — have become masters in the art of finding fun group activities for quarantine celebrations, like scavenger hunts and family-friendly video games.

But indoor activities aren’t just for kids. Adults, whether they’re roommates or romantic partners, can have some creative fun too. One particularly hilarious trend that’s translated perfectly to pandemic celebrations is the niche Powerpoint presentation, which reclaims the dreaded utility Powerpoint for frivolity, by letting friends grandstand over hot takes no else cares about. TikTok is full of inventive “folk games” you can imitate, too, some of which you can find on this thread archiving them

On the more traditional side, there are all these virtual Thanksgiving celebrations you can join or have on in the background.

Depending on your comfort level as well as local conditions and restrictions, socially distanced outdoor meetups might still be on the table, too. Before doing anything, though, be sure to always check this interactive risk assessment tool before assuming you’re in the clear — and of course always take every measure to lower the risk of spread. 

Folks probably won’t want to brave night-time outdoor holiday dinners. Temperatures will keep dropping, so you’d need access to outdoor heaters, fire pits, and lots of private outdoor space.

But if risk conditions are reasonable in your area, set up a Thanksgiving afternoon picnic — either with those in your household or a small, masked group that remains at least six feet apart and preferably commits to strict quarantining or even COVID-19 testing before. Remember to never share food or drinks, and don’t let booziness drop your guard on public safety guidelines. 

Parks are also likely to be very crowded, so try to find your own secret spot elsewhere, like near hiking trails, a large, empty parking lot, or someone’s backyard. Outdoor movie screenings (bring your own blanket!), drive-ins, or maybe even visiting an orchard for apple picking are good options to look into (orchards can get crowded, so try to go on an off day if you can).

Sure, it’ll be cold. But that didn’t stop Americans from playing football as a regular holiday tradition before. If you’re being joined by folks outside your household, though, forgo the sports ball game altogether. Opt for activities that force folks to keep their distance, like skating, sledding, biking, scootering, etc.

11. Spend the holidays in Animal Crossing with friends

I know a lot of us dropped off from playing this game after the initial quarantine rush, and you might be dreading all the weeds and guilt-trips you’ll get from your neighbors when you return. 

But the holidays are the perfect time to go back to your Animal Crossing: New Horizons village. The game thrives on special real-time events tied to IRL holidays. There’s Turkey Day, Toy Day, and usually a New Year’s Day celebration. We’re sure Nintendo will announce more seasonal activities soon, too.

Spending time with friends in an adorable video game town you decorated for the occasion is honestly the closest I’ve come to replicating the intimacy of an IRL gathering in the virtual realm. Trust me: Just do it. 

12. Take joy in all the bullets you’ll dodge by NOT celebrating with family

On this of all years, let us finally destigmatize wanting to just spend the holidays alone. The notion of people choosing to be alone on the holidays is, for some reason, enraging to folks

But those people need to grow the hell up. 

Being alone on the holidays is hard. But so is being around family.
Being alone on the holidays is hard. But so is being around family.

Wanting to celebrate your time off for a holiday by hanging out with yourself doesn’t make you sad, pathetic, unfriendly, or anti-family. It just means our definitions for what makes us feel recharged and thankful are different.

Let 2020 be the year where we let ourselves and each other break free from the social scripts of a Hallmark greeting card. Just because popular messaging tells us we’re supposed to want big family gatherings and do festive activities over the holidays doesn’t mean it’s actually what we want in our heart of hearts. Take this time alone to yourself to do what would genuinely make you happy, if you didn’t owe anything to anyone else. 

In reality, not all of us are all that new to spending holidays alone, without family or friends we feel close enough to spend it with. For shits and giggles, do some aggressive counter-messaging to all the social media posts about happy family celebration posts, by celebrating your solitary celebrations that don’t put anyone at risk of dying! 

You can always send love or connect with friends and family any other day of the year, maybe at a less tense time that isn’t weighed down by all the intense baggage that comes with the holidays.

13. If you need to just get through the day, just get through the day

There’s no shame in not succeeding in having a happy holiday alone. We’re all coping with a lot, and none of the emotional landmines of the holidays are made any easier by the pandemic.

Ultimately, if you’re midway through your COVID-19 holiday celebration and you just want to break down and cry, don’t see that as a personal failure. You are human. A big part of growing up is learning to be OK with not having the perfect Christmas or Thanksgiving of childhood. 

Maybe none of the plans you made for your solo holiday are helping or they only make you more distressed. That’s OK. Just throw all that shit out the window. Sleep in, eat trash food, play video games, listen to comfort podcasts, try meditating (if that’s your thing), take a weed edible (if it’s legal in your state), pop on some mindless TV. 

Whatever helps get you through the day, do it, and be proud of yourself for getting through the day. After all, there’s always next year.

UPDATE: Nov. 13, 2020, 12:13 p.m. PST: This post has been updated to include Zoom lifting its 40-minute time limit on Thanksgiving Day.


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