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By Alice Lesch Kelly
The winter holidays are all about spending time with family and friends. But this year, with the pandemic hanging over us, celebrating safely presents something of a challenge. Fortunately, protecting your health doesn’t have to mean eliminating celebrations entirely. As long as you’re willing to bend your traditions a bit, you can still have fun.
Try pitching one of these creative alternatives to your traditional holiday party to family and friends:
1. Light up your holiday spirit
Massachusetts has two of the best public holiday light displays in America, according to USA Today. But those that made the list, Winterlights in Stockbridge and Canton and Bright Nights at Forest Park in Springfield, are just a few of the magical drive-thru light displays in New England. So turn on your holiday playlist, grab some hot chocolate, and drive. Even if there’s no official display in your town, just appreciating your neighbors’ decorations can become a favorite tradition.
2. Stream a virtual holiday performance
If it’s part of your usual holiday season to go to shows like “The Nutcracker,” or you’ve always wished it was, take advantage of the virtual shows being put on by the Boston Ballet, the Museum of Fine Arts, and many more.
3. Watch your favorite holiday films
You don’t have to be physically together to put on cozy socks, get a fire going, and turn on your favorite holiday classics. Use apps like Netflix Hangouts to watch with friends and family who are near or far.
4. Make the outdoors part of your tradition
Consider heading outside for socially distant sledding, ice skating, show shoeing, a friendly snowman building competition, or a winter bonfire (with a permit, of course). A bonus of wearing masks: they’ll help keep your faces warm on chilly December days.
5. Tis’ the season of Zoom
If you want to share the holidays with those outside of your household, plan ahead to do a virtual event like a gingerbread building competition or holiday cocktail making class. Or set up your computer in the kitchen and chat while you work on the same recipe for a holiday meal—or holiday treats–to enjoy at the same time.
Make a plan
If you’re planning to go to others’ holiday events, there are two primary things to take into account: Traveling and attending in-person events such as dinners or parties. Deciding whether to do one or both requires some careful thinking, according to Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
“You have to take all risks into account,” Doron says. In doing so, consider your physical and emotional vulnerability and the vulnerability of the people with whom you will come in contact, as well as how carefully you and the people you will encounter have been following COVID-19 safety guidelines.
If you decide to travel, follow experts’ advice such as these CDC recommendations on travel as closely as possible. Keep in mind that no matter how careful you are, you could still become infected. Although recent reports have found that the risk of coronavirus transmission on airplanes is relatively low, for example, places like airport waiting areas with poor ventilation could be less safe, Doron says. And although driving with people in your own household is safe, stopping at highway rest stops is riskier.
The state of Massachusetts asks residents to limit out-of-state travel and to be able to provide a negative COVID-19 test administered within 72-hours of returning to the state or to quarantine for 14 days upon returning to the state. You can monitor which states are considered lower-risk, and even assess your risk based on state and gathering size, with these tools.
Testing—even when it’s done frequently—offers no guarantee that you are virus-free or that you won’t infect others. And although pre-visit quarantines reduce risk, they don’t eliminate it. “If you really hunker down and don’t leave your house for 14 days before you travel that’s effective, but not foolproof,” Doron says.
“Instead of a sit-down dinner, start a new tradition by going for a walk in a park. This strange time has brought about countless instances of innovation, and this doesn’t have to exclude your holiday plans. Get creative,” says Dr. Michael Sherman, senior vice president and chief medical officer of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.
For specific guidelines, check out these CDC recommendations about holiday celebrations. Other good sources of COVID-19 safety information include the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and local health departments.
“It’s non-negotiable that you have to follow the rules where you live and where the people you are visiting live,” Doron says.
If you do decide to host or attend an in-person dinner, Doron recommends “blowing up the notion of what a traditional gathering looks like.” That means utilizing outdoor spaces, opening windows when indoors, and keeping indoor gatherings as small and short as possible. You can further reduce risk by making sure guests wear masks, stay six feet apart, and wash hands frequently.
The safest choice is to limit contact to the people in your immediate household, says Deborah Youngblood, commissioner of Health and Human Services in Newton, Mass.
Skipping your traditional holiday visits may feel heartbreaking, but it could be the best gift you can give yourself and your loved ones this holiday season.
“We need to take the long view here and prioritize the health and well-being of all the people we care about, as well as the community at large,” Youngblood says. “That may mean not being able to share time in person this year so that you can share time with loved ones in years to come.”
And who knows—maybe changing things up for a year will be more fun than you think. That’s the view that Betsy Blumberg Maxwell of Holliston, Mass., is taking.
“I always host a huge Thanksgiving with 22 to 30 people. I love doing it but it’s expensive and exhausting,” Maxwell says. “This year we are staying home in pajamas, watching movies, and ordering Chinese food for dinner. I’m actually really excited about it.”
If conflicting family opinions on how to approach the holidays are causing stress or anxiety, take a break with one of Harvard Pilgrim’s free mindfulness classes, available on Tuesday and Thursday mornings beginning at 8:30 a.m. In addition, Harvard Pilgrim’s Living Well at Home classes offer a great way to get in some post-holiday-dinner exercise. These classes are open to the general public.
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