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6 Ways to Make Your Pandemic Holiday Joyful and Meaningful

Making kindness and meaning your goal.

'Photo taken by Zoe Weil'
Source: 'Photo taken by Zoe Weil'

Many years ago, my family had the flu on Christmas. We all had high fevers, and our holiday celebrations were summarily cancelled. The best we could do was curl up on the couch together as we did nothing at all. But at least we were together.

For too many people this year, the coming holiday season is a bitter reminder of loneliness and loss. Due to COVID-19, we may not be able to be with our loved ones, either because we want to keep each other safe, or – tragically – because we have lost someone we love. The financial hardship so many are experiencing on top of this already painful reality is inevitably leading to even greater sadness, anxiety, and stress as families try to manage a holiday season that’s largely oriented toward spending money on gifts.

While this post can’t bring back loved ones, make it possible to celebrate in person, or solve anyone’s financial difficulties, I offer these ideas so that your 2020 holidays may bring unexpected meaning and joy. Most of them can be adjusted and modified for in-person or distanced celebrations.

1. Give gifts of the heart. The most memorable gifts I’ve received are hand made. My home is full of artwork my son created, intricate patterns my husband carved into sticks he discovered on the ground, and beautiful rocks and shells that friends and family have found and given me. If you don’t feel like you’re particularly artistic and don’t have a natural area where you’re likely to find special gems in nature, try making a memory box or a “why I love you” jar in which you write happy memories on pieces of paper, or stories and thoughts about why you love a friend or member of your family and give them the box or jar for the holidays. Such a gift may be more meaningful than anything store-bought could ever be.

2. Reach out to those who’ve made a difference in your life. Last week I received a Facebook message from a woman whose name I didn’t recognize. Turns out that more than a quarter-century ago I gave a humane education presentation at her school when she was a child. She was reaching out to tell me that I’d had a lifelong impact on her. After receiving this unexpected message, I found myself thinking about the people who’ve had a positive impact on my life who have no idea about their influence on me. I began figuring out how to find and thank them. What about you? Who has had a positive influence on you but perhap has no clue that they made a difference? Can you find them this holiday season and reach out to let them know what they did for you? Might you make this a family project and then share the stories that result?

3. Create playful ways to share gifts. If financial hardship prevents you from buying the gifts you wish you could purchase, try creating some mystery and fun with what you are able to give. Perhaps you decide to make a batch of a loved one’s favorite cookies. You can put those cookies in a tin and then hide it. Then you can create a scavenger hunt for them to find it, adding to the pleasure and building fun memories around a simple but loving gift.

4. Get to know each other better. Write down some thought-provoking questions and create a game in which you and your loved ones – whether in person or by video-conference – choose certain questions to ask each other. The questions can simultaneously plant seeds of kindness and meaning while bringing you closer. Here are some ideas to get you started:

• When was a time that you changed in a powerful way for the better?

• What would you like your epitaph to be?

• What’s your vision of a better world, and what’s one thing you can do to help bring it about?

• What personal qualities are most important to you in yourself and others?

• What kind thought or feeling have you experienced but never spoken to someone in the group that you’re ready to share now?

5. Make your holiday as humane as possible. One of the positive side effects of not purchasing many gifts is the smaller impact we have on the environment. Our homemade gifts generally have a much lighter footprint on the Earth. It can be difficult to recognize such benefits when we are feeling loss and deprivation, however, so it can help to intentionally decide to make humane and sustainable choices this holiday season. One kind choice we can make is to eat humanely over the holidays. By choosing a plant-based, sustainably- and justly-produced meal for the holidays, which can include many festive and traditional low-cost dishes, you’ll save money while eating compassionately. Eating foods that don’t cause suffering or death to others can lift our own spirits considerably.

6. Express gratitude. No matter what you have lost or suffered this year, there are surely those who’ve shown you kindness and who’ve labored to help provide what you do have. If you can’t think of an individual person, turn your attention to groups of people such as frontline healthcare workers, first responders, grocery store employees, nonprofit workers, teachers, farmers, activists, humanitarians, and so many others who have worked tirelessly this whole awful year, and who’ve made others’ lives not only better, but also possible. Allow yourself to feel gratitude and then find a way to express your thanks, perhaps through a card or a kind word at the grocery store. It’s amazing how the experience of gratitude – even when it’s hard to muster – can shift our perspective positively.

Charles Dickens’ famous story, A Christmas Carol, is a good reminder that wealth and health do not equal happiness. Love and thankfulness do. Be gentle with yourself this holiday season and remember the power of kindness to lighten the darkest days. And for those who do have extra money to spend, by supporting small business owners and nonprofit organizations working to make a difference, you can help fill in the gaps left by others who aren’t in a position to do so.

More from Zoe Weil M.A., M.T.S
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