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What we kept, what we ditched, what we cooked: How covid changed the holidays

(Kelly Anne Dalton for The Washington Post)

Mary-Liz Lichtenfels got burned in last year’s pandemic Christmas tree shortage. And instead of hosting 19 people for the holiday, it was just her, her husband and their three millennial children. It was a quieter celebration, but Lichtenfels, who runs the McLean, Va., staging business Redesign by ML, says all of that uncertainty gave her the courage to mix things up in 2021.

Last year’s stark December, before coronavirus vaccines were widely available, disrupted many holiday rituals. Many had lost loved ones to covid-19. In-person celebrations were canceled and hastily moved to Zoom. Cookie parties were mothballed, and Grandma couldn’t come make the pizzelles. Sacred prime-rib feasts were dumped in favor of having takeout tacos outdoors under a patio heater — if you could find one. Even church services went virtual. There was sadness as Americans had to let go of many of their cherished annual customs. But wait. Are they all so cherished?

“The pandemic liberated us from certain traditions,” Lichtenfels says. This year, she and her husband raced out the day after Thanksgiving and cut down an eight-foot Fraser fir to ensure they had a tree, but it’s smaller than what they had in pre-pandemic times, and she only hung half as many items on it, skipping her traditional “ornament neighborhoods.” (She also confesses to ditching some ornaments from the “island of misfits” — the tacky pieces that were always hidden in the back.) Instead of installing the tree in the formal living room, where they rarely spend time, she stuck it in the kitchen, “where we can see it from three rooms.” Excited about her tree’s new look, she shared it on a story on social media. “Within one minute of posting the tree on Instagram, I got a text from my youngest son that said, ‘What are you doing?’ and a big sad emoji,” she says. “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we need to simplify our lives.”

Pauline Wallin, a clinical psychologist in Camp Hill, Pa., who specializes in holiday issues, says people are definitely reevaluating their decorations and celebrations this year. “It could be more of the same — or time to make changes. Because it was disrupted, here is the opportunity to start new traditions or carry on and really appreciate the old ones,” she says.

This year, every family will have or has already had the chance to redefine the way they do Christmas and Hanukkah. Some people are decorating with more inflatables and doubling their number of outdoor lights. Others are donating ornaments to charity and having their children choose and wrap gifts for those in need. Hybrid celebrations that include family members living far away are making Zoom a new holiday tradition. (Now, if only Aunt Betty could remember to hit the mute button.)

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Change has come, but it’s not always easy. “We have this feeling that the way we celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas is the way it has always been. So any change to that feels very upsetting,” says Michael Norton, a business administration professor at Harvard Business School. “Our traditions are actually changing all the time, but when change is forced on us, it feels like we are losing something important to us, and it feels violating.” Instead of defaulting to old rituals, Norton’s advice is to reassess and to keep the traditions you value the most.

The omicron variant of the coronavirus arrived just in time to add more stress and uncertainty to seasonal gatherings, even for those who are vaccinated and boostered. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that those who are eligible get vaccinated, and it says gatherings held outside are safer. If you are with people from multiple households and from different parts of the country, you should avoid crowded spaces before travel and take tests to further reduce risk. Masks were part of last year’s holiday celebrations, and they will be around this year, too.

Kristen Carpenter, chief psychologist with Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, says last year’s holiday season taught us to have a contingency plan — although you can’t be ready for every possibility. And so much is out of our control. “This is not a time to lay blame or be angry,” Carpenter says. “This is the time to give each other some grace. So much is uncertain. Being kind to one another is the most important thing.”

Safety has become a top priority, says Mélanie Berliet, general manager of the Spruce, a home and lifestyle website. Many of us have become more caring and more accepting of different risk tolerances and boundaries. “Checking in with people is now just part of the process,” Berliet says. “We are feeling each other out and discussing our different degrees of comfort, acknowledging every person’s situation is unique.”

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Coronavirus tests were part of the scaled-back 2020 celebration at the Bowie, Md., home of Nathalie Alexandre, her husband and her two children. Only one of her three sisters could join them. “We had a lot of friends and family that died during the pandemic,” says Alexandre, who runs Brooks & Bridges, a custom tableware company. “It was really tough. Last year, the pandemic showed that someone could have dinner with their family one night, and the next day have to be dropped off at the hospital, and their family could not come in.”

Alexandre says her priority this Christmas is spending time with loved ones and creating good memories. Her siblings and cousins are coming, and everyone — including the dog — will be wearing matching pajamas for a group photo.

Cooking together is a new Hanukkah tradition for Candace Ourisman, co-founder of Secretly Gifting, a gift concierge service in D.C. She spent much of December 2020 in the kitchen with her children, Scarlett, now 5, and Van, now 7. “We had a lot of time to cook since we were home for so many days. It was a great activity, and my son loved making my mother’s brisket and matzo ball soup,” she says. For this year’s Hanukkah latke party, Ourisman talked to her kids as they cracked eggs and mixed them with matzo meal and potatoes, discussing how the special recipes are part of their family’s tradition.

Last year’s bleak holidays made some people realize that it was time to chase their dreams. Regina Acheampong, senior director of business strategy for Palo Alto Networks, missed her family gatherings, and she missed travel, too. Acheampong, who in single and lives in Charlotte, is planning a small family dinner for Christmas Eve. Then, on Christmas, she and a friend have tickets to fly to France and Monaco, destinations on her bucket list. “What the pandemic has shown me is that life is short. I want to start the new year somewhere different, with new energy, and take a break for a bit,” she says. “It’s my first time ever leaving the country for Christmas.”

Putting up holiday lights the day after Halloween last year and getting a tree the day after Thanksgiving made Ashley Bronczek, the other co-founder of Secretly Gifting, feel as if she was bringing some excitement to her three children as they stayed home. “We still have young kids, and you still want the magic of Christmas,” Bronczek says. More importantly, she engaged her kids, all under 8, in giving back to the community by making PB&Js for Martha’s Table and shopping for gifts through D.C. Prep for those in need.

“I asked for each of my children to be given a child around their same age to shop for. My kids loved picking out the present for them and wrapping it,” she says. “We did things last year that, in the past, we have not been able to do, because we didn’t have time.” They are doing the sandwiches and gifts again this year.

Children will happily add more holiday rituals. When Berliet and her husband realized last December that they would be celebrating Christmas morning in their Brooklyn apartment with just their 3-year-old, Stella, they decided to take the whole Santa Claus thing to the next level. They left a plate of homemade sugar cookies and a glass of milk for Santa, as well as carrots for the reindeer. The next morning, there was a line of cookie crumbles leading to the tree and some half-nibbled carrots left behind. “We did lots of black footprints and soot going up the chimney and on our balcony,” Berliet says. “It looked great.” And alongside a pile of gifts, there was a letter from Santa saying he was proud of Stella, of how well she had done at school and of how kind she was. “We never would have had the time to do this if it wasn’t the pandemic,” Berliet says.

But now, they are on the hook for an even more fantastic Santa welcome this year. “Once you go big on the Santa footprints route, there is no going back,” Berliet says. “I guess we accidentally created a new tradition for our family.”

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