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How to cope without typical holiday traditions this year — and even start some new ones

Dr. Fauci on Thanksgiving plans in pandemic
Dr. Fauci: "My Thanksgiving is going to look very different this year" 03:02

As coronavirus cases surge nationwide, scientists and local leaders are urging families to forgo holiday traditions that include large indoor gatherings. But experts say there are ways to start new traditions during this unprecedented year, as well as ways to cope with what may be a lonelier holiday season. 

Dr. Amanda Fialk, a licensed clinical social worker in New York, told CBS News she encourages people to acknowledge the feelings and emotions they're experiencing about missing out on the typical holiday season. 

"There are people, events, and experiences you will miss," said Fialk, chief of clinical services at The Dorm, a treatment community for young adults. "When you acknowledge and validate your feelings, they become less overwhelming and you are less likely to become blindsided by your emotions."

Fialk also recommended people make a plan for how they'll spend the holidays. "Whatever the plan is, make that plan in advance," she said. "Knowing that this holiday is going to look different and you may be celebrating alone makes it imperative that you make a plan for the day that keeps you busy, engaged, and happy."

She also suggested people take time for self care as a way to manage stress and anxiety. "Make a plan to do something nice for yourself on a daily basis over the holidays," she said. "Exercise, yoga, mindfulness, meditation, aroma therapy, warm baths, proper sleep and nutrition are all wonderful examples of good self-care."

For those whose family members are insisting on in-person gatherings, Fialk recommends being "assertive, not aggressive" with boundaries. 

"Be mindful of always communicating with 'I' statements," she said. "'I don't feel comfortable gathering for the holidays this year. Doing so does not feel safe or the right choice for me.' 'I statements' allow your point to be heard without attacking someone else's feelings or views."

Of course, there are still ways to celebrate with family and friends even if gathering and travel restrictions keep you from seeing them in person. "Digital celebrations can create feelings of love and connection. Distance doesn't have to mean loneliness or isolation, so keep holiday traditions alive digitally!" Fialk said. 

Other festivities, like company holiday parties, can also be held digitally., for example, has a Virtual Holiday Party experience for companies, which includes games like trivia and ugly sweater contests held over video conference. 

In addition to holding a virtual dinner, families can also share recipes and show off their dishes or play virtual games, Sara Wellensiek, who runs the creative lifestyle blog Mom Endeavors, told CBS News. "Families could start the fun by cooking together over Zoom. You could also host a virtual Thanksgiving 'happy hour' before everyone sits down to eat in their own, separate homes."

She also recommends virtual games like a pie-eating contest or pie decorating.

If you are gathering with others, holding outdoor meals is also recommended by the CDC, since the virus is known to spread more easily indoors. One way to hold an outdoor holiday celebration is to make it a picnic potluck, Wellensiek said. 

"Families could meet in a yard or park – only if there is room to adequately distance more than 6 feet – and each bringing their own meal," Wellensiek said. 

Wellensiek said this is also the perfect year to start new traditions, like letting kids pick what food items they went on the menu, or having them make their own desserts. "Or, you could do 'pajama Thanksgiving' where everyone gets new holiday pajamas and you eat in comfy style," she said. "You could also put a focus on giving and sharing by having the kids make 'grateful for you' kits to drop off on the doorsteps of friends and loved ones nearby."

"Focusing on finding ways to make it fun and special for the kids can really help shift the perspective this year into something 'fun and different' instead of just sadness about what is being missed," Wellensiek continued, adding that parents should to talk to kids about why they can't do "normal" holiday activities.

Fialk said if families are foregoing Thanksgiving get togethers entirely, another alternative to a traditional holiday is planning a big family trip when travel restrictions are lifted and it's safer to see each other. 

She also recommended finding other ways to feel grateful and connected during the holidays, like doing service work, which "can inspire a sense of gratitude and connection to a greater purpose."

"There are many people suffering over the holidays in the middle of a pandemic," Fialk said. "As a result, there are tons of opportunities to do service and give back. Order holiday meals to be delivered to a homeless shelter or an elderly neighbor spending the holidays alone."

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