To travel for the holidays or not to travel—that has been the question for many people over the past few months. A hard year apart from family and friends combined with pandemic fatigue mean that some are taking the risk and planning to spend the holiday season with people outside their household.
But a good number of people aren’t. A recent survey found that almost 60% of Americans may not travel to see friends and family for the 2020 holidays. And not everyone is sad about it.
Despite what the song says, some people can beat home sweet home and are more than happy to spend the holidays away from family and even alone. But when every commercial, jingle, carol, and guilt-tripping family member tells you you’re wrong for feeling that way, it can stir up a lot of complicated feelings.
If you’re usually anxious about going home for the holidays, aren’t close or have troubled relationships with family, or struggle to balance holiday travel with finances or work, this year’s circumstances can give you an excuse to reclaim the holiday season for yourself. If you haven’t gone home for the holidays or you’re not planning to and you’re feeling fine, you’re definitely not alone.
As I cooked Thanksgiving dinner this year, I listened to Christmas carols. Without the disruption and conversation that usually occurs while dinner is being made, I was able to listen to the lyrics more closely. Aside from the simply creepy songs (I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus? Baby It’s Cold Outside???), the majority were about how the holiday season is basically the be-all and end-all of happiness.
But it’s not the most wonderful time of the year for everyone. For a lot of people, the holidays are a complicated and even unhappy time. People struggle with grief, financial instability, seasonal affective disorder, difficult or harmful family relationships, addiction and body image issues, and loneliness—even as commercials, songs, and films show us big houses decked in lights, plenty of presents, and happy endings.
Our society often sets high expectations for days, seasons, holidays, and celebrations like weddings and birthdays. We expect perfection and when the reality falls short, it can be crushing.
Often, things don’t go as planned. Sometimes, they downright suck. Not going home for the holidays and instead forging our own path can allow us to temper expectations. If we can find pockets of peace, relief, stability, and joy, that’s more than enough. What that means is different for everyone and that’s totally okay.
Decisions about whether or not to travel for the holidays predate COVID-19. School, work, time, distance, family situations, finances, and more can all factor into whether or not someone decides to travel for the holidays or not.
Sometimes, family and friends will take your decision not to come home for the holidays personally, and they may even try to guilt you into traveling. But what you do is up to you.
And some good news: a recent study showed that people are actually more receptive and less hurt than expected when they receive rejections accompanied by explanations of COVID-related concerns.
All you can do is state your thoughts and feelings clearly and hope the other person understands. Feeling confident in your decision is one of the most important aspects of communicating news someone else doesn’t want to hear. Remember, if the other person reacts poorly, it’s not a reflection of you. They could be struggling as well, and their reaction might be how they express their own anger, guilt, or sadness.
Anyone who has eaten two holiday dinners (or more!) in one day, or even one weekend, knows that trying to fit various family and friends into holiday plans can be like a festive and stressful game of Tetris.
Not traveling can give us more flexibility and allow room for creativity. You can preserve some of your holiday traditions or create new ones. Make your favorite family recipes, decorate your home, watch holiday-themed movies at home, send holiday cards, or do a “no-contact delivery” of homemade treats for local family, friends, or neighbors.
Doing things virtually can get even more creative. Send gifts and open them together virtually, participate in religious ceremonies virtually, or host a virtual dinner party. And if you can only take your family in small doses, logging off of that Zoom chat will probably feel great.
Or don’t celebrate at all! To some people, a holiday is just another day, and that’s totally fine. You can still take time to relax, recharge, create, connect, and reflect if you choose to do so, whether your activities are holiday-themed or not.
If I could wipe one set of memories from my mind, it would be every time I’ve had to travel for the holidays. The Wednesday night before Thanksgiving in the lower level of Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City. December 23rd at various airports around the world. One flight that took all of Christmas Day.
This year, I spent the Wednesday before Thanksgiving on the couch eating ramen and watching reruns of Dexter. The last (and only) time I stepped on a plane in 2020 was way back on January 1st. I love to travel and it’s one of the things I’m mourning most this year, but being forced to avoid LaGuardia in December feels like a blessing in disguise. Now the money I would have spent on flights can go to food, gifts for my loved ones, donations, and savings and I’m not mad about it at all.
So much of this year has felt out of my control, but leaving my decision to not travel to COVID-19 has given me a weird sense of relief. I don’t have to decide. I have nowhere to be. I have nothing to do. And that has given me an odd sense of freedom and therefore, happiness.
By now, we all know that the safest way to protect ourselves from COVID-19 is to wear a mask or face covering, practice physical distancing, wash our hands frequently for 20 seconds at a time, and to limit the size of gatherings if we choose to gather at all.
Just like travel, the planning that it takes to see other people during COVID-19 is taxing. When was the last time the person you’re with got tested? Are you going to keep masks on? Are you going to eat? Are you going to stay outside? Are kids allowed to play together?
Over the past few weeks, my husband and I have agreed that reducing our cognitive load should be a big area of focus for us as New York City moves into winter. We’re trying to eliminate as many decisions and burdens as possible. In short, we’re trying to lead a simple life. The best way to stay COVID-19-free is to eliminate the chance of being exposed altogether. Hence, Zoomsgiving.
It would be a total lie to say that I’m happy about spending the holidays away from my family. If given the choice, I would be with them, no question. But emotions are complicated and we rarely feel one hundred percent of one emotion. If you’re happy being away from your family, that’s valid. If you’re sad, that’s valid too. If your emotions are a snowstorm made of a million unique and intricate snowflakes all swirling around you in a confusing blizzard, I’m right there with you.
This year has been very hard for almost everyone and if we want to increase the likelihood that people can find meaningful ways to participate in holiday events—and stay safe—we need to acknowledge that. I hope that one good thing to come out of this holiday season is that we stop the delusional insistence that the holidays are perfect and wonderful and everyone should be brimming with joy at every moment because that is simply not the reality for the majority of people.
If you’re not going “home” for the holidays (whatever that means to you) and you’re happy about it, you’re not alone. Feelings are complicated, this year has been tough, and everyone deserves to be safe and healthy—and happy, as least as often as we can.
Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.
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