Like everything else this year, the Covid-19 pandemic has turned the holiday season on its head, thanks in part to restrictions on travel and gatherings.
For some, the idea of forgoing their annual holiday traditions is upsetting, especially given the difficulty of this year. But for others, who may find the usual holiday rituals stressful at best and triggering at worst, it may come as a relief. Instead of making their annual “guilt trip” home for the holidays, they’re able to use this year to reset and create their own traditions.
I talked to experts about the role traditions play in our lives and how to make the most of the nontraditional 2020 holiday season. Here’s what they had to say.
Why do traditions matter?
Why humans care so much about traditions and rituals has been the focus of Dimitris Xygalatas’s career. “It’s especially puzzling because I’ve asked thousands of people why their rituals are important to them,” said Dr. Xygalatas, an anthropologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut, “and the most common response is to look at you and say, ‘What do you mean, it’s just what I do,’ or ‘I don’t know — that’s just our tradition.’”
After two decades researching this topic, Dr. Xygalatas says that like others in his field, he has found that traditions and rituals serve important functions on both personal and social levels. “On the personal level, those rituals or traditions provide meaning in our lives by giving us a sense of structure and familiarity,” he explains. “And on the group level, they help shape our collective identities, and find the sense of belonging and cohesion within our groups.”
According to Marissa King, a professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, our commitment to holiday rituals also stems from the fact that human beings are exceptionally predictable, with many of our behaviors “guided by inertia” and an inherent need for social order and stability. “If you think about why we have rituals — whether that’s from going to get a tree, or doing an office Secret Santa — it’s really a way of reaffirming our collective identity and shared values,” Dr. King said.
Rituals around this time of year — specifically, the winter solstice — have been around for millenniums. “For as long as humans have been around, we’ve been aware of changing seasons, and the winter — in whatever hemisphere you’re in — marks a new year,” said Pam Frese, a cultural anthropologist and professor at The College of Wooster. In other words, our urge to observe or celebrate the passage of time each year in December predates any modern version of the holidays and our desire for structure and being part of a collective identity has kept the traditions alive since.
In his own research — both in the field and the lab — Dr. Xygalatas and his team have found that when people are stressed, they perform more ritualized actions. And after measuring their physiological responses, they observed that those who participated in more collective rituals tended to have lower cortisol levels and reduced levels of anxiety.
Unfortunately, this presents a challenge for us in 2020, living through a pandemic. “At the moment when we need them the most, that’s when we have the least access to those cultural typologies that we use to soothe our anxiety,” Dr. Xygalatas says.
This also offers insight into why, despite warnings and requests from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other infectious disease experts to stay home, some people are flouting the recommendations and traveling to visit family and friends for the holidays — something Dr. Xygalatas says is itself telling. “This is one way in which you see how important rituals are to us,” he explains. “There are a lot of people risking their lives to take part in them.”
Is it Time for a Reset?
Not everyone shares this enthusiasm for the holidays and their accompanying rituals. In fact for some, holiday traditions can feel more like entrapment than something to celebrate, according to Dr. King.
The good news, she says, is that this year we have the chance to reconceptualize the holidays, finding new ways to recreate stability and a sense of belonging by starting our own traditions. For example, if you’ve lost someone close to you recently and were dreading certain holiday activities because it puts a spotlight on their absence, Dr. King says we can use the unusual 2020 holiday season to our advantage.
“I think there’s an opportunity right now for us all to have that suspended reality, and create our own traditions based on what might feel more comfortable,” she explains. “Oddly, I think — particularly if you’ve had hard holiday experiences — they may, in some ways, be more authentic.”
Of course, you don’t need to have suffered to want to start your own traditions. For instance, many people in their 30s and 40s who now have families of their own may still feel obligated to travel to their hometown each year and recreate the holidays of their childhood. While this may keep their parents happy, it also makes it more difficult for them to create traditions as their own family unit.
Take inventory of family traditions
Communication tools like Zoom and FaceTime provide us with opportunities for virtual visits with family and friends that didn’t exist on such a widespread level even a decade ago. But 2020 has not only taught us how convenient it can be to have the technology that allows you to see loved ones face-to-face: we’ve also learned that using it can be exhausting.
Rather than attempting to recreate your family’s entire holiday agenda on Zoom, Dr. Eugene Beresin, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, recommends first taking an inventory of your typical traditions, and determining which make the most sense to continue remotely. This way you can devote your time and energy to the activities best suited for virtual participation.
This is also your chance to create new holiday traditions, like a virtual family game night or a remote karaoke party (where holiday songs are not mandatory). “You can invent tradition,” Dr. Frese says. “Lots of people do this. What makes it a tradition is passing it on and keeping it active every year.”
Cook together, virtually
There’s a reason so many people consider holiday meals to be among their favorites of the year: food tastes better when it’s connected to a ritual. “Our taste is shaped by our subjective experiences, and this is part of it,” Dr. Xygalatas explains. “On holidays, it might include the fact that you have taken part in the preparations, or the long wait, or all the bells and whistles that surround the ceremony. But mostly it’s because of the importance we attribute to the ceremony itself.”
And while having various members of your family gather together online to virtually share a meal can be nice, Dr. Xygalatas recommends taking it one step further. “Don’t just do the eating part: do the cooking part online, too,” he says. “Get a sense of actual, active participation in the preparation of food and decorations even. Maybe livestream the whole day.” This way, even if your version of your family’s signature casserole doesn’t look exactly like your cousin’s, the act of preparing the dish together might improve how it tastes.
Share family stories
Dr. Beresin suggests making a point of including family stories in your celebrations this year. “Our brains are wired for narratives,” he explains, adding that if no stories come to mind, you can start by looking through old photo albums. And while everyone responds to funny memories — like the year the dog knocked over the Christmas tree — Dr. Beresin says that tales of resilience can be especially beneficial for children, particularly this year.
“Those kinds of narratives are super important to make a deeper connection with the family, and to help kids realize that sometimes we get stronger when we go through hard times,” he said.
And if your family is still living off the same four stories from the Great Depression or World War II, remind them that in years to come, they’ll be able to reminisce about the year they celebrated the holidays during a pandemic.
And don’t forget to document this year’s celebrations: They are going to be great material for future generations.