Celebrating During a Pandemic?

It is that time of year where many of us are preparing to celebrate various religious and cultural holidays.  This year, part of the preparation will involve thinking about how we will celebrate during a global pandemic with our need to physically distance.  While holidays can be sources of stress during a normal year, due to things like pressure to purchase gifts and create memories for others, remembrance of loved ones lost, and complicated family relationships, we may experience many additional challenges this year.  These could include things like not being able to physically be with the ones we care about and not being able to engage in some important and meaningful traditions.  

Because of these and other added challenges, we wanted to provide you with some hope and ideas about making the best out of this difficult situation; finding some joy and fun and minimizing the effects of stress on ourselves during the upcoming holidays.  

It’s Okay to Feel Sad

If there are important events we cannot do this year or people we cannot see, it is okay to feel disappointed and sad about this.  These are real losses, though they may feel small in comparison to other losses.  2020 has been a year of small and large losses for almost everyone and making space for all feelings is important for good mental health, though it does not feel pleasant.  Acknowledging difficult feelings and giving yourself compassion for these little and large hurts is important for mental well-being and allows us to move through them more effectively than denying them (For more on the importance of self-compassion see Drs. Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer, e.g., Germer, 2009). 

We, as parents or caregivers, will feel these losses and so will our children.  It is important that we make space for our children to have these feelings too.  While this can be difficult for us, as we do not want our children to experience painful emotions, it’s very important for us to do so for their mental health.  Some important ways to support our children with difficult emotions are to help them name the emotions, provide empathy for the feelings, and help our children find healthy ways to cope with them.  (For more on this, watch our free on-demand webinars called Parenting in Times of Uncertainty and Managing Back-to-School Anxiety During COVID-19, which can be found on the Events page of our website).

Shift our Expectations

Sometimes our level of stress or dissatisfaction around holiday events is related more to what we think a “good” holiday should involve rather than appreciating what is present.  These “should’s” or expectations come from many places including comparing ourselves with others, popular media messages, the culture around us, our family and friends, and our past experiences.  Checking, changing, or reducing our expectations, will be particularly important this year as so many things need to change for us to celebrate safely. 

Once we have given space for feelings of sadness and disappointment, we can take a closer look at what we expect of our holidays, ourselves, and those around us.  Are those realistic this year?  Are we being perfectionistic or rigid in our expectations?  How can we make meaning and joy in new, creative and safe ways this year? Related to this is recognizing that events will never go exactly as planned.  Mistakes will be made.  Plans will go array.  The zoom call may freeze.  Accepting these “bumps in the road” is another way we can be realistic with ourselves and those around us.  Knowing this, we can approach our holiday events and those around us with some flexibility, grace, and a sense of humour.  Sometimes the biggest mistakes become the best holiday memories and even lead to new traditions.  This flexible attitude can also help us to focus on and appreciate what went well rather than what went wrong; reducing our stress level and increasing our joy.  (For more on the benefits of psychological flexibility see Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010.)

More is Not Always Better

In normal years, holiday stress is often connected to the pressure to do more, to go big.  However, the more activities, events, and tasks we add to our lists, the greater the stress and the greater the chance for overwhelm.  More is not always better when it robs us of our joy and the purpose and meaning behind the celebration.  Maybe the silver lining for this year is that the reduced number of events, activities, and obligations can lead to a reduction in stress.  

It is also important to remember that, “more is not always better,” also applies to gift giving.  It can be helpful to remember how quickly children get tired of their toys and what long-term memories are really made of – time together, relaxed (not stressed out) parents and caregivers, family and friends, and unexpected moments that can’t be planned.  When planning gift giving, it is also important to be aware of our financial situation, which may be much different this year.  The short-term reward of smiling faces and impressing with gifts should be balanced against our ability to afford the gifts and potential financial burden and stress that may result.  In a study measuring what behaviours or situations contribute to people feeling loved, participants ranked human interaction, like a kind word, cuddling a child, and receiving compassion, as more significant expressions of love than receiving material items (Heshmati et al., 2017).  It can also be helpful to keep in mind what the holidays mean for us spiritually, culturally, or personally and focus our time and energy on those things rather than presents.  This leads to the next tip.

Include Meaningful, Fun and Rejuvenating Activities

  • To make the most out of holiday time, it is important to include some events and experiences that are meaningful to you and your family.  There is a lot of evidence to show that meaning in life is connected to well-being and positive functioning (e.g., Ho, Cheung, & Cheung, 2010).  What important traditions or experiences might you prioritize this year to help you and your family connect to the meaning of the holiday?  You may want to consider a gratitude practice which has been shown to have positive benefits for mental health and well-being (e.g., Lin, 2017). 
  • Countless studies are showing both the mental health and physical health benefits of having fun (e.g., Pressman et al., 2009) for adults and children.  Fun is really not an option when it comes to our mental health.  When planning your holiday time, make sure to include some activities that are purely for the fun of it.  Maybe each member of your family could select one fun activity to do together this holiday season.
  • Many of us have been working very hard to help keep our essential services and our families going during the pandemic.  This naturally contributes to feelings of stress and general fatigue, as well as worsening mental health.  Research is coming in about the impact COVID-19 has had on our overall well-being, such as increased rates of anxiety and depression (Dozois, 2020).  So, as you are able, we encourage everyone to take some time to rest over this holiday time.  Research has consistently demonstrated the benefits of rest and relaxation for managing our mind and body’s stress response (e.g., Chiesa & Serretti, 2009), yet for some reason, we do not often make this a priority.  While it can sometimes feel like we are doing “nothing,” when we rest and relax, know that this is something vital both for our mental and physical health.  Below are some links to get you started, but incorporating some relaxation into your family’s lives will require carving out some time and making it a priority.  Your mind and body will thank you.

Find Ways to Give to Others

One way we might include something meaningful during our holiday time is to find ways to give to others.  Research shows that doing something kind for ourselves improves our mood and general well-being (e.g., Kahana et al., 2013).  It helps others and us!  Giving back to others helps us feel good, improves our community, and adds to the meaning of the holiday spirit.  Again, the tips above still apply.  We should do this in a way that works for us and our level of stress.  This year, we also need to keep in mind the need to physically distancing and abide by other safety guidelines.  Simple things like making a phone or video call or sending a card can mean a lot to someone.  Maybe making donations instead of buying presents could be an option for some families.  Giving to others during the holiday season can give us ideas and motivation to consider giving back to others throughout the year.  This year it is increasingly important that we take care of each other, and the benefits to us and others remain no matter when we give.

Another way we can give back to others during the holiday season is to include and be sensitive to others’ situations.  For example, others may not celebrate the same holidays we do and may feel left out or feel their holidays are minimized in comparison.  Obviously, this applies particularly to those of us in the dominant culture.  While we certainly can feel the freedom to celebrate our holidays, we can do so with grace, kindness, and sensitivity.  Learning about and appreciating other’s holidays, that we may not celebrate, is an important way to build and create community and a sense of unity.

Another situation that requires sensitivity is for those for whom the holiday time is very difficult.  This may be due to a sense of loneliness, grief, remembrance of loved ones lost, or other reasons.  Holidays can evoke a lot of mixed feelings for people.  Making sure we do not expect everyone to feel happy or the way we do is a way we can be sensitive and give back to others.  Listening to and allowing those around us to have their unique experiences is a wonderful gift.

Balance. Joy. Meaning. Fun. Rest. Family. Friends. Community. Love.  These are what holidays were meant for.  We encourage you to take the time to foster these things in a reasonable, safe, and flexible way for you and those around you.  Whatever holiday you celebrate, we wish you all of these things and more.

Written by Jo Ann Unger, PhD., C. Psych.



  • 1 in 7 children suffers from mental illness in Manitoba (Chartier et al., 2016). 
  • 70% of mental health problems have their onset in childhood or adolescence (Government of Canada, 2006).

There Is Hope The good news is that mental illness can be treated effectively. There are things that can be done to prevent mental illness and its impact and help improve the lives of children experiencing mental health concerns. Early intervention is best. 

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Chiesa, A. & Serretti, A. (2009).  Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in health people: A review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15(5)., 593-600.  https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2008.0495 

Dozois, D. J. A., & Mental Health Research Canada. (2020). Anxiety and depression in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic: A national survey. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cap0000251 

Germer, C. K. (2009). The mindful path to self-compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions. New York: Guilford Press.

Heshmati, S., Oravecz, Z., Pressman, S., Batchelder, W.H., Muth, C., Vandekerckhove, J. (2017). What does it mean to feel loved: Cultrual consensus and individual differences in felt love. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(1), 214-243. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0265407517724600 

Ho, M.Y., Cheung, F.M., & Cheung, S.F. (2010).  The role of meaning in life and optimism in promoting well-being.  Personality and Individual Difference, 48(5), 658-663. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2010.01.008 

Kahana, E., Bhatta, T., Lovegreen, L. D., Kahana, B., & Midlarsky, E. (2013). Altruism, helping, and volunteering: pathways to well-being in late life. Journal of aging and health, 25(1), 159–187. https://doi.org/10.1177/0898264312469665 

Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical psychology review, 30(7), 865–878. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.001 

Lin, C. (2017). The effect of higher-order gratitude on mental well-being: Beyond personality and unifactoral gratitude. Current Psychology, 36, 127-135. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-015-9392-0 

Pressman, S. D., Matthews, K. A., Cohen, S., Martire, L. M., Scheier, M., Baum, A., & Schulz, R. (2009). Association of enjoyable leisure activities with psychological and physical well-being. Psychosomatic medicine, 71(7), 725–732. https://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181ad7978 



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