A step-by-step guide on politely declining holiday gathering invitations and hosting responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic—and feeling OK doing it.

By Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
November 23, 2020
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We're supposed to go home for the holidays, but, as COVID-19 cases surge in the United States, a growing chorus of public health experts is warning Americans to skip the travel and even small family gatherings.

Leading up to Thanksgiving, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urged Americans to only celebrate the holiday at home with people within their household, echoing advice from governors and local officials across the country. The risks of hosting extended family gatherings—for a handful of people or a large crowd—are striking as the number of COVID-19 deaths climbs past 250,000.

"The tragedy that could happen is one of your family members, from coming together and family gathering, could end up being hospitalized and severely ill and dying," Henry Walke, M.D., M.P.H. the incident manager for the CDC's COVID-19 response said during a press briefing yesterday. "We don't want to see that happen."

But canceling beloved holiday traditions is easier said than done—and can spark some uncomfortable conversations between those who plan to heed health experts' advice and those who don't.

"These conversations are hard because everybody has a different opinion about what's safe and what's not," says Crystal Edler Schiller, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.

Preparing to tell your family you aren't celebrating the holidays with them? Here's how to do it—and walk away feeling as positive as you can about it.

Consider the Big Picture

Before picking up the phone, decide what feels safe and what doesn't for your household this year, suggests Dr. Schiller. As you consider your decision, think about how you want your family member to feel about you at the end of the conversation, but also how you want to feel (after all, boundaries are about you). That can be a difficult exercise for some—women, in particular, says Dr. Schiller.

"Women, oftentimes, think a lot about how they want the other person to feel about them, but they don't think about how they want to think about themselves," explains Dr. Schiller. But the truth of the matter is, feeling proud of yourself at the end of a hard conversation is important, she says. After the conversation, remember: "You were kind, but you also were firm. You were able to clearly convey your wishes."

Write Out a Script

Unsure on how exactly to deliver the message? Dr. Schiller recommends this three-pronged approach. If you want to, write it all out, so you can stay on message during the call.

  1. Describe the facts clearly. In a couple of sentences, you might talk generally about increasing COVID rates and point out that the CDC has recommended against gatherings. But think like a court stenographer, Dr. Schiller recommends: Stick to the facts.
  2. Share how you feel. To soften the blow, share your own emotions about your decision, says Dr. Schiller. Say something like, "I really care about you and I so love our tradition of getting together for Thanksgiving, but it's not safe for our family to do that this year, and I'm feeling sad about that."
  3. Explain the benefits. Hammer home the benefits of this alternate celebration. You might say something like, "By passing on this year's event, I know I'll just feel so much less anxious and more comfortable," says Dr. Schiller. "It will just be a holiday that feels a lot better for our entire family."

Time It Right

Don't plan on making the call while your exhausted toddler refuses to nap or your third grader needs help with homework either. Make sure you're well-rested and in a quiet space where you won't be interrupted. "Wait for a moment of peace," says Dr. Schiller.

Be Ready for Naysaying

Some family members may respond with anger or sadness that you won't be joining them this year. Some might mock you for being concerned about the coronavirus.

Remember that most people have made up their mind about COVID, says etiquette expert Elaine Swann, founder of The Swann School of Protocol in Carlsbad, California. You likely won't change their minds. So, focus on future gatherings when you respond.

If the person has pushback, say something like, "I appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me, but this is the decision that I'm going to make this year. I hope we can spend some time together soon,'" she suggests.

As you say this, be confident in the decisions you're making for yourself, says Swann. "Don't feel as though you have to go into detail with an excuse or a reason. We have to just feel empowered to speak up for ourselves and say what we will do and what we won't do. And say it with a smile and with graciousness and respect."

If they continue to push back? That probably says more about them than you, adds Dr. Schiller. And ultimately? "If they love you and respect you and want your family safe, they will respect your decision."

If You're Up for It, Offer Alternatives

Even if you won't be sitting around the Thanksgiving table together, lighting the menorah at Hanukkah, or unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning, there are still ways to spend time together if you feel comfortable doing so.

Virtual gatherings on Zoom or FaceTimes with grandma reading favorite holiday books can ensure generations stay connected. Socially-distanced outdoor walks along a nature trail with masks can also be less risky ways to meet up. Figure out the traditions that you truly love, and consider suggesting a new way to celebrate, advises Dr. Schiller.

Even if you don't plan to attend or host a gathering, Swann says you can still participate. Have a bakery deliver dessert and baked goods or send money for the host to use toward buying drinks or appetizers for the affair.

If you usually host Thanksgiving for grandparents and they live nearby? Consider putting together a to-go basket with a prepared meal, dessert, flowers, and homemade cards from the grandkids.

"When you put together something that is handmade with some of their favorite things, it sends a message of care, compassion, and concern as opposed to just a hard no," says Swann.

Look Ahead

If you feel at odds with loved ones, try looking to the future and working on maintaining your relationships so that next year's holidays can be bigger and better than ever—together, says Swann. "Put forth the greatest effort to get the individual to think about future opportunities together," she suggests. "And recognize that your goal is to remain in relationships with these individuals. You want your relationship to survive the pandemic as well."

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