It’s a holiday season like none other, with health officials urging Americans to cancel many traditional celebrations due to the ongoing pandemic.
But that doesn’t mean families and friends can’t come together to create meaningful new memories either virtually or at a safe distance.
Whether it’s getting outside, cooking a delicious — albeit smaller — meal or participating in religious activities online, concentrate on what can be gained or made better and not just what’s been lost. That’s one message the Rev. Kevin Eshleman, lead pastor at Ephrata Community Church, is spreading this Christmas.
“It turns out that (times like this) can force us to be creative, to do things we never would have thought of before or maybe didn’t have time for,” Eshleman says. “I would encourage people to think about what they can begin this year that they can carry into the future as well.”
After a year filled with sickness, loss and anxiety, consider these ideas and perspectives to see 2020 out with at least a little joy.
Lighting up the lead up
Acknowledging that indoor activities are among the riskiest for virus transmission, many local organizations are stepping up when it comes to outdoor events and decorations.
At Ephrata Community Church, for instance, Eshleman says there will be a bigger emphasis this year on outdoor decorations for the broader community, rather than the typical focus on interior decor.
At Garden Spot Communities, an outdoor Christmas tree lighting will be accompanied by an outdoor Christmas light and banner display that spans the New Holland campus.
On Tuesday evenings through December, residents will be able to take small group wagon rides to take it all in. The community remains closed to most visitors, but leaders are considering allowing family members to see the lights by car through a registration system.
“Holidays are so important. It’s a time of family gatherings and friends,” says Colleen Mussleman, director of life enrichment. “There’s a loss when that can’t happen. ... We’re trying to mirror things we’ve done in the past but in a new, safe way.”
Seniors don’t have to live in a retirement community to enjoy the lights.
Expect more churches, entertainment venues and community organizations to do large-scale light displays this year. Have nearby family who won’t be able to come together around the table on Christmas Day? Invite them to caravan through a drive-through display in separate cars. Pass out walkie-talkies so the grandkids can share their reactions with grandma and grandpa in another car.
Visit discoverlancaster.com for an extensive list of lighted events.
If the weather holds, consider a trip to Longwood Gardens, which is operating at 35% capacity with advance ticketing only. The displays are wheelchair accessible, and between lighted trees and railway tunnels, visitors can warm themselves by firepits. Nature is an ideal way to lift the spirits, and the sights and smells of a Longwood Christmas can bring some serenity to a stressful time.
The 130 or so members of Temple Beth El have already experienced the year’s Jewish High Holy Days in the time of COVID. The congregation has participated in most events virtually, making a few exceptions considering the Jewish faith encourages members to abstain from work (and most technology) on the Sabbath and during religious feast days.
Usually at Hanukkah, each family brings its own menorah and places it on a table to create a moving display after lighting. This year’s celebration will be outdoors, depending on the weather, and the synagogue will light an outdoor, electric menorah instead.
“Although we want to connect with people and feel the joy, safety is always first,” says Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky.
For many, attending holiday religious services is both a time for personal reflection and a chance to come together with family and community members.
Many churches are meeting in-person, but some individuals are hesitant to attend on what is traditionally the most crowded service of the year.
Ephrata Community has added services with limited capacity (asking members to pre-register) and improved its technology capabilities given renewed interest in its 10-year-old livestreaming service.
Other changes are also in the works this year. Candles are usually re-used; This year, attendees will be asked to keep or dispose of them after each service. Eshleman also expects his team will prepare home kits for those among the 2,200 active members who cannot attend. The box will most likely include their own candle, a worship guide, cookies and hot chocolate mix.
Feel free to borrow the idea, and join loved ones for the same service with some physical touchstones to provide a sense of connection.
Singing more your thing? Search YouTube for sing-along options or download Smule, a karaoke app that lets you sing the same song, side-by-side on video.
The family meal
“Sitting at the table, it’s a sacred tradition,” says Pavolotzky, noting that his congregation skipped its normal group meal for Passover.
At Hanukkah, beginning Dec. 11, fried foods like sufganiyot (small jelly donuts) take center stage in homage to the oil that lasted a miraculous eight days inside the Temple of Jerusalem.
“I’m pretty, pretty sure there will be plenty of Zooms,” Pavolotzky says of the upcoming season, noting he’s seen Jewish Community Centers offer virtual challah baking lessons and more this year.
This December, many holiday tables will be missing relatives from across the country or just down the road. Find a way to incorporate them anyway.
If space allows, give each missing guest a place setting and place a photo of them on the chair back. Take a photo and send it to a relative who is in a nursing home — a tangible way of making them feel remembered, especially if you’ve sent along a holiday goodie bag, too.
For those who typically host, maybe this is the year to finally share the secret recipe for Grandma Sara’s apple pie or Uncle Mike’s mac and cheese. Schedule a video call, have everyone gather the ingredients and plan a time to cook together, wherever each chef is. In future years, this could be a tradition in the lead up to the big day.
For intergenerational fun, look for free resources that give you everything you need — including conversation starters — to cook with kiddos. Radish, a kids’ cooking club, offers great ideas and a few recipes at bit.ly/RaddishCooking.
Or enjoy meals with immediate family members, then dial up other relatives to share dessert as you reflect on memories from long-ago holidays. This could be a great year to rummage through old photo albums and share the stories behind a few favorites. Black-and-white photos from World War II or even the Great Depression may help put into perspective the sacrifices on behalf of each other’s health in 2020.