The Importance of Rituals During this COVID-19 Thanksgiving
Innovative ideas for creating closeness while staying socially distant.
Posted Nov 20, 2020
Now that the presidential election has been called, Americans are gradually coming to terms with the results—whether that’s letting out a celebratory exclamation of joy or sadly mourning the loss of their candidate. While political anxieties remain, the holiday season is now winding its way onto our screens through advertisements. Family members’ anxiety may be further fueled by the increase in COVID cases and deaths resulting in texting, chatting, and/or FaceTiming one another with last-minute plan changes to the traditional Thanksgiving gathering.
In what has already been the most challenging 2020 year given the COVID-19 pandemic, job losses, quarantine, and deaths of so many, the prospect of holidays spent apart from extended family and chosen family members can feel like a big mountain that feels too big to climb. As we begin to think about the upcoming holidays of Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Chanukah, or Kwanzaa, it is really important to give space for both the sadness of who and what will be missing, and consider what can be created anew to provide nourishment for the soul.
Pre-COVID Holiday Stress
While Halloween is usually celebrated with the nuclear family or among adult friend groups pre-COVID, the upcoming holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas are usually gathering times for extended family. Holiday gatherings offer emotional and psychological grounding that is part of the foundation of our identity within our community as well as reinforcing our self-esteem.
The holiday season is difficult enough for many; it is notoriously the season of breakups, folks challenged by Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), facing ostracization due to gender non-conforming status or sexual orientation, and increased alcohol intake. Unsurprisingly, forced joviality often has the opposite effect, making one feel inauthentic and disconnected from oneself and those around us.
The numerous additional stressors of 2020 have been shown to be an even greater threat to Americans’ mental health than previous national crises. According to a recent study by Czeisler et al posted on The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s site, “the prevalence of symptoms of an anxiety disorder (in 2020) was approximately three times those reported in the second quarter of 2019 (25.5 percent versus 8.1 percent), and prevalence of depressive disorder was approximately four times that reported in the second quarter of 2019 (24.3 percent versus 6.5 percent).”
Rituals for Holidays and Lifecycle Events
In her paper, “Rituals in the Time of COVID-19: Imagination, Responsiveness, and the Human Spirit,” family therapist Evan Imber-Black writes: “Special time demarcates ritual time from regular time, enabling us to look forward to a ritual, whether it is daily, seasonal, or yearly. A special place may be a church or a hotel or restaurant or graveyard—or it may be a backyard, a kitchen table, a living room, all transformed by a ritual to become a special place.”
I have always let my clients know that it is helpful for one’s sense of agency, connection, and continuity to consider restrictions as a creative opportunity to come up with new rituals. As a former choreographer, when I was commissioned to create a dance piece to be performed on a tiny stage, it required me to imagine movements I never would’ve created without being forced to consider space limitations. Rituals, like art, provide us with structured time, a way of marking the time as special and out of the ordinary, and imbue meaning that reflects our deepest values. They fortify our identity and strengthen the connections to the people we love.
When past clients have had to face miscarriages, abortions, separations, or coming out, I’ve encouraged them to create a ritual that is meaningful to them to perhaps repeat each year as a marker and remembrance of the pain, loss, relief, and joy of a life stage milestone that hasn’t been recognized in society or certain religions.
COVID Creativity: Innovative Rituals to Bring People Closer During Holidays and Lifecycle Events
Around the world, families are coming up with creative ways to celebrate the holidays together in various states of distance: physical (due to a global pandemic) and, in some families, political (the drawn-out 2020 U.S. election). People across the world created new rituals for Easter, Ramadan, and for life-cycle events like weddings and funerals.
For instance, Ramadan, a holiday that starts on the evening of April 23 and culminates on May 23, sees Muslims fast during the daylight hours. As mosques closed due to COVID-19, those observing the holiday found ways to pray at home, focusing on individual prayer habits and turning the isolation into inner peace.
For Easter, families celebrated from a distance by decorating their homes, sending Easter cards, playing Easter-themed games like bingo virtually, while hosting online family gatherings on Easter Sunday. Weddings and funerals became virtual affairs as well, with slideshows, streaming, and postponements becoming the norm.
During the earlier days of COVID-19, I attended two shivas (Jewish period of mourning) and a funeral via Zoom. They actually felt very intimate and one mourner created breakout rooms for his friends and relatives where I could speak with him one on one without facing a Zoom group containing two to three screens of boxes of other faces. This is a good example of restrictions providing fodder for newer meaningful rituals.
The wedding industry developed a new vocabulary in light of the virus as well: many to-be-weds organized "minimonies," micro-weddings or elopements to celebrate. Graduation ceremonies this past May took to the road, with teachers and families driving down neighborhood streets to mark commencement. Online, live-streamed commencement speeches were delivered by the likes of former President Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Students recreated proms and yearbooks over social media. Witty pregnancy announcements went viral, with jokes about parents not social distancing and buying the wrong protection.
While Thanksgiving as a holiday is not considered religious by most Americans, some people experience it as a very meaningful ritual that binds families and friends to one another. Due to an increased number of COVID cases in many parts of the country right now, some families are choosing to celebrate apart from one another according to updated CDC recommendations. However, there is still a need to create an intentional family ritual and celebration.
There are creative ways to create rituals and a sense of togetherness over Thanksgiving to celebrate this spiritual awareness. For example, for my family’s Passover Zoom, my brother and I planned sections and songs and improv assignments for each family to do so that every family on Zoom had time to contribute something fun or meaningful to the holiday.
Here are some ideas to create anticipation, connection, and meaning to your 2020 COVID-19 Thanksgiving;
- Order crafts online and have them delivered to each family member’s home ahead of Thanksgiving so that you can create a themed DIY project together via Zoom. For example, you can buy the makings of a fall wreath and each family can work on it together while catching up on Zoom displaying their crafting ability.
- Safely prepare traditional dishes and deliver them to family and neighbors in a way that does not involve contact with others (for example, leave them on the porch).
- A game of charades is always fun and can be played virtually.
- Karaoke is a good way to bring music into your celebrations—belt out your favorite tunes over Zoom.
- Schedule a time to share a meal together virtually.
- Have people share recipes ahead of the big day so they can cook their turkey, dressing, or other dishes alongside one another via video platform or Facetime. It replicates everyone hanging around the kitchen talking while cooking or watching the foods being prepared.
- Once seated for dinner with your loved ones online, you can go around the screen to add a ritual of saying what one is thankful for, which would be a wonderful way to emphasize family bonds and heal potential family rifts.
Come Up with Mindfulness Techniques to Ground Oneself and Keep Anxiety, Worries, and Fears Down
You may also want to create a space for mindfulness during the holidays, whether that means doing a short mindfulness breathing period each morning on your own or leading a mindfulness session for one's family at the outset of the gathering (whether that's in person and/or virtually). Carving out calm from the chaos is, as Dr. Jamie D. Aten writes, a necessity. “When disaster hits, life can feel chaotic, and our energy is used up fighting fires. But when the flames die down, it’s important to make space to do some of the things we once enjoyed doing.”
One in four older adults report anxiety and depression amid the 2020 pandemic and, historically, epidemics are accompanied by higher suicide rates. Researchers predict mental health repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic for years to come. The holidays are a high-pressure microcosm of the difficult year we had, and adjusting to a new normal is only possible by keeping track of your own mental health.
I recently led a mindful grounding session for colleagues who were anxious about the election on the eve before election day. This was a way I could give service and help others remain centered and less anxious. Sending food to tireless hospital workers working over the holidays who are now swamped with COVID cases is another nice way to give back to your community. Be sure to reach out to neighbors, especially those who may live alone—a simple text or phone call could be enough to brighten their day. If you don’t feel able to deliver food to homebound or homeless folks this year, find ways to donate time or money so those folks can have a Thanksgiving or holiday meal. These are ways, with the support and willingness of a community, to still come together.
Get the Whole Family Involved in Exercise During the Holidays
A recent study showed that the pandemic has had a clear impact on diet and physical activity and therefore cardiovascular health. During COVID-19, weave in creative ways for the whole family to move together during a Zoom family gathering. Some examples might be:
- A younger family member can bring a dance move learned on TikTok to teach everyone else.
- A teen, young adult, or other avid music fan can create and share a music playlist everyone can play while dancing in their respective living rooms online together.
- An older member of the group can bring a family story or poem that shares the spirit of the holiday for them.
Facing a Post-Election Holiday Season with Compassion
Because this Thanksgiving holiday takes place in the aftermath of an election that was highly unprecedented and divided this country, it is important to create boundaries around political discussions before you all gather together (whether it’s virtual or in IRL). Let family members know in advance that you're planning to just listen but would appreciate not discussing politics at the gathering (if you know there are conflicting ideas among relatives).
It may be a new opportunity that relatives who have different political beliefs than others are at a greater physical distance this year. This physical distance might give family members a chance to focus on missing one another than attempting to win a debate. We can also use this Thanksgiving ritual as an opportunity to heal political fissions by focusing on what we all have in common. This could be a great exercise in compassion. Meditation teacher and published author Sharon Salzberg emphasizes that compassion does not connote agreement; in fact, she says that agreement is not even a part of feeling compassion: “We are all linked, and compassion is the natural response of seeing that linkage. It is caring and concern rather than a feeling of separation into us and them... [Compassion] is the result of the recognition [of the interconnectedness of everything].”
Developing some mindfulness skills and habits in advance of that Zoom holiday gathering or phone call might be the most powerful gift you can give yourself and your family/friends.
Please keep several mental health resources handy this upcoming holiday season.
Mattioli, A. V., Sciomer, S., Cocchi, C., Maffei, S., & Gallina, S. (2020). Quarantine during COVID-19 outbreak: Changes in diet and physical activity increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, 30(9), 1409-1417. doi:10.1016/j.numecd.2020.05.020
Sher, L. (2020). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on suicide rates. QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, 113(10), 707-712. doi:10.1093/qjmed/hcaa202
Czeisler MÉ , Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1049–1057. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6932a1
Imber‐Black, E. (2020). Rituals in the Time of COVID‐19: Imagination, Responsiveness, and the Human Spirit. Family Process, 59(3), 912-921. doi:10.1111/famp.12581