How to celebrate the holidays alone without feeling completely depressed

Illustration of a lonely Christmas tree.
What’s behind me? Definitely not my family and friends.
(Super Freak / For The Times)

Many of us are about to spend the holidays the same way we spent most of 2020: at home.

The vaccine has finally arrived, with the first doses going out to frontline medical workers this week. But the rollout won’t happen fast enough to prevent thousands of new cases from people who are already infected. The holidays represent a particularly dangerous time, as a population depressed and exhausted from a long year feels the pull to get together with family for some semblance of normal.

Already, health experts say the “Thanksgiving bump” contributed to record-shattering daily case and death counts. Many people will make the safer choice for the rest of the winter holidays, which is to stay home this year and plan for an extra-festive 2021.

In the interest of forgoing this holiday season together in order to ensure many more with our extended families, let’s focus on the good news. Though it might be hard to believe right now, as things get so grim, the promising vaccine developments suggest the proverbial tunnel finally has a light at the end of it. We just need to hang in there a little longer.


You’ll likely be able to plan a spectacular family feast for Easter 2021, said Paula Cannon, a virologist and professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Keck School of Medicine at USC. (For calendar-marking purposes, that’s April 4.)

“Come Easter, you can have two turkeys. You can make up for it,” she said. For now, “I think there is no greater way to show your gratitude and give thanks for your family than to forgo the usual family get-together this year.”

In other words: We only have to do this once.

So let’s make the most of it and celebrate everything that makes the holidays special without putting anyone else at risk.

Embrace it as self-care

This won’t be the first time for Jacy Topps, a freelance writer who’s written about why she chooses to celebrate the holidays alone. It started when she moved to New York City and couldn’t afford a ticket home, but she discovered she enjoyed making new traditions on her own, like watching all the “Harry Potter” movies on TV while drinking homemade butterbeer.

After she got married she spent the first few holidays with her in-laws, but this year, she said she’s opting out. Her wife’s family holds different political views, and she said that although a part of her wishes she could see them and gloat, it’s more important to her to take this time for herself.

Indulging your own wants and needs over fulfilling a duty to be with family (for a potentially contentious gathering) is a radical act of self-care, particularly as a Black woman, she said.


“There is that stigma that you have to spend [the holidays] with people even though you don’t want to see these people or travel or hang out with them or do their traditions. It’s more of a societal pressure,” she said. “Sometimes you have obligations, and that’s fine, and you do those some years, but some years it’s OK to treat yourself and do what makes you happy. Your obligation is to yourself.”

She and her wife are going all out this year, at home. An extensive menu has been brainstormed and wine-paired for Thanksgiving dinner. The tree has been trimmed — earlier in the season than usual, like a lot of us this year. A full day of movie viewing is in the works.

“Whatever brings you joy, just find it,” Topps said.

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Re-create rituals

An expert on holiday rituals echoes that assessment. Ovul Sezer, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina, led a study about how participating in rituals and traditions affects enjoyment of the holiday season.

The verdict: “Family rituals improve the holidays,” Sezer said, and add to overall holiday enjoyment.

And they didn’t just look at religious rituals. Things like having a board game night or opening gifts at the same time or eating a traditional family recipe all contributed in the same way. These are all things we can try to re-create with the power of phone and video call technology.

So while it might be tempting to skip doing anything holiday-related altogether — to pretend we are merely in late, late, late, late March of 2020 — it’s worth doing.

If you are someone with Zoom-savvy friends and family, I went over ideas for staying connected during the holidays starting around the 27-minute mark in The Times’ We Can Teach You That event.


A few ideas to get you started:

  • Have everyone buy the same holiday craft supplies, puzzle or Lego set and do them together at the same time.
  • Send out a family recipe and cook it together.
  • Open a video call and decorate your houses at the same time (a virtual form of parallel socializing).
  • Do YouTube karaoke with holiday songs.
  • Plan a virtual game night with online versions of the board games you usually play together at home.

It might seem like trying to re-create things would make it all worse, amplifying how different it really is. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, said America was already in a loneliness epidemic even before the pandemic set in. We don’t have a lot of good data yet as to whether getting together on a video call alleviates loneliness, she said. It might come down to personal preference and whether people are comfortable using the technology.

Offline, another critical aspect of alleviating loneliness is increasing the quality of the face-to-face interactions that you are able to have, Holt-Lunstad said. When you have downtime with the people you live with or your pod, don’t spend it all looking at screens. Engaging in hands-on activities together and having real conversations will make you feel more connected to one another than scrolling Twitter simultaneously.

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Make a holiday bucket list

MaCenna Lee, whose YouTube channel “XO, MaCenna” has more than 600,000 subscribers, describes herself as “very much a Christmas person.” Already, you can watch her video where she puts up Christmas decorations in her Mid-Wilshire apartment.

“I’m having it big this year. If I can’t do anything else, I’m going to enjoy everything that holiday decorating brings,” she said. Her goal is to “inspire people to welcome in the holiday season indoors and make sure they’re spending time enjoying traditions and keeping up their traditions and not letting them dissipate because they’re not able to see family.”

Her plan for the rest of the season: a “holiday bucket list,” where she writes down all the things she loves doing during this time of year and crosses something off it every day. Some of the activities she has planned include making hot cocoa, creating DIY gifts to send to family and Christmas decorating.

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Another thing to add to your list: Practice gratitude. Holt-Lunstad said research shows that expressions of gratitude are associated with increased social bonding and reduction of loneliness. Telling people you appreciate them makes both of you feel better, whether it’s going around on a Thanksgiving video call to say what you’re grateful for this year or leaving a note for your neighbor saying thank you for letting you borrow a roll of toilet paper.

And be grateful for the things you can still do while taking pandemic precautions. Cannon, the USC virologist, said her backyard is permanently set up for COVID-safe gatherings: two tables, spaced 20 feet apart.


“There’s really nothing you can do that’s as safe as moving a party outdoors,” she said.

We’re lucky to live in Southern California, where the weather will stay reasonable through winter, though not exactly toasty, especially if you’re out past sunset. She just made a critical California-winter investment: patio heaters.