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3 ways to make your holiday celebrations meaningful despite a pandemic

Each November, as the air turns from crisp to chill and pumpkins on front porches are replaced with evergreen wreaths, the excitement of the season starts to settle in. Just before the hustle and bustle takes over, there is a small window where we can simply soak in the anticipation of all that is to come and relish in the nostalgia of holidays past. It is a season of gathering: heads bowed in unison as prayers of thanks are offered over turkey dinners and extra slices of pecan pie, familiar carols sung a bit off-key with those you love most, and the hope and peace that come from setting aside differences and distractions to worship together in honor of the Christ child.

But this November, the feeling is more unsettling than sentimental as the time to deck the halls approaches. We are collectively facing a holiday season that will look quite different from years past, and many are left wondering, “Can we still experience the joy of gathering in 2020?” It’s clear that we all desperately need something to look forward to, but it seems like a near impossibility in the year that normalized the terms “social distancing,” “quarantine,” and “isolation.” But with a few shifts in perspective, we are confident that the coming weeks can truly be the most wonderful time of the year.

Let Go of Expectations

It is human nature to seek comfort in consistency and the holiday season is often the source of our fondest memories and time-honored traditions. But in 2020, the first step to finding joy in the holidays is to let go of expectations.

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It may be difficult to accept that this isn’t the year of neighborhood turkey bowls and multi-generational Christmas parties, but if we stubbornly try to recreate something that simply cannot be, we are sure to be disappointed and will likely miss out on seeing the beauty right in front of us. In fact, there is something exciting about considering what could be possible if we take all of the time and effort that is usually rationed among a large circle of people and funnel all of that energy towards serving, loving, and ministering to the people under our own roof.

Coming from a very large, boisterous extended family has always made holidays feel larger than life. For me, Thanksgiving just doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving without piles of cousins, aunts, uncles, and extra friends filling every seat and corner of the house. But this year, we’ll be trading a Thanksgiving table set for 40+ people, two days of cooking, and hours of doing dishes for an intimate family dinner. While it certainly won’t be the same, I’m looking forward to having more time for meaningful conversations, a thoughtfully planned, pared-down menu, and the ability to create an artfully set table. And all of the time usually spent cleaning up can be used instead for a family card game around the fire, or better yet, a Christmas movie and a nap.

The Next Best Thing

Once you have let go of unrealistic expectations, finding an alternative can be as simple as asking yourself, “What is the next best thing?” While it may be tempting to completely give up on your plans when the limitations of the pandemic get in the way, it’s important to keep in mind that an imperfectly executed tradition is better than nothing at all. You will find that as you get creative, troubleshoot, and move forward with an adjusted plan, your favorite activities can still foster joy and connection even when carried out in a slightly different way.

Katie’s family Christmases have always included sleeping over with grandparents, hours spent catching up over games, and quality time spent preparing for a big Christmas buffet. But with vulnerable, elderly family grandparents, staying in close quarters for extended amounts of time together isn’t possible. After everyone’s needs had been carefully considered, the Hughes have decided to move forward with a smaller, socially-distanced alternative. Because their expansive buffet just isn’t possible this year, it was decided that the next best thing was individually boxed meals shared picnic-style spread throughout the room and, instead of their traditional sleepover, they are opting to drive the hour home after the festivities. But nothing can get in the way of the Christmas pajama parade, which will be a little longer this year, as each person in the lineup will march six feet behind the person in front of them. There will be elements of the day that will certainly be missed, but the blessings of being together, even for a short while, are what matter the very most.

Journey Another Way

Just as there is comfort in the familiar, there is excitement and adventure in the new. Years ago, Emily was reading about the wise men in Matthew 2, who, after meeting the Savior, were told in a dream to change course in their journey, and we read that they “departed into their own country another way” (Matthew 2:12). She then decided that each Christmas, the Freemans would journey another way too, choosing one new family activity to add to their celebrations. Some ideas are better than others, and some have actually turned into favorite yearly traditions, but each year, they all look forward to trying something they’ve never done before. A particular favorite was when her oldest children were newlyweds and couldn’t afford to buy expensive gifts for their sibling gift exchange. A plan was made and everyone piled into their cars, drove to the nearest Deseret Industries, and drew names in the parking lot for their $5 thrift store Christmas. After scattering throughout the store to each find a gift, they came home and wrapped the gifts using only scotch tape and plastic bags, to add to the novelty. They still laugh fondly over those thrift store Christmases, and Emily couldn’t help but smile when she recently noticed a thrift store gift still saved by one of her adult sons, held onto years later.

This year, maybe we can look at our various obstacles and less than ideal parameters as an opportunity to think outside the box and come up with new ways to gather. Our hope is that, despite the odds, we can unite in our purpose to pull our loved ones in close (figuratively, if not literally), meet them where they are, and serve God and each other this holiday season. And we trust that He will guide us in our journeys and multiply our efforts.

Images: Jessica Kettle Photography

Image titleCreate. Gather. Give. The gathering home invites people in, instills a sense of belonging. It is an expression of love, the art of hospitality. Inside The Gathering Home, you will find stories, ideas, and resources to help you plan intentional gatherings. Bring the Spirit of Christ into your everyday gatherings and weekly rhythms by creating deliberate celebrations and seasonal gatherings for your family, friends, and neighbors. Whether you have a few minutes or a few hours, you can make your home a gathering home as you create the space, gather the people, and give your love. Written by bestselling author, Emily Belle Freeman, this book is meant to teach the art of gathering in an effort to reclaim the power of home. The book is available now at DeseretBook.com and you can find more ideas for your gathering home on Instagram @the.gatheringhome.

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