Gathering For The Holidays? Here’s How Different Families Are Handling It.

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Navigating the holidays in 2021 is a bit different than it was last year around this time, when the likelihood of catching and spreading COVID-19 was very high.

We now have vaccines. Many of us have already gotten the booster. And Americans are traveling for the holidays with gusto again: AAA Travel is predicting that 53.4 million Americans will travel for Thanksgiving, an increase of 13% from 2020, when federal health officials were begging people to stay home to avoid spreading the virus.

Even Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser, said it’s fine to gather if you and your family members are fully vaccinated. (That’s what he said he plans to do this Thanksgiving.)

“If you get vaccinated and your family’s vaccinated, you can feel good about enjoying a typical Thanksgiving, Christmas with your family and close friends,” Fauci, who is also director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview last week hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Of course, everyone is different when it comes to what they’re comfortable doing. If you’re feeling uneasy about hosting or going to someone’s home because you or someone you’re close to is immunocompromised, or because you’re unsure of someone’s vaccination status, it’s your prerogative to hang back.

Even if you’re fully vaccinated, you might be worried about coming into contact with those who aren’t, and people who have received COVID-19 shots are still able to spread COVID, after all.

The reality is, almost two years into the pandemic, many of us are still doing risk assessments before going out. And that’s OK, said psychotherapist Andrea Wachter.

“These are complex times and now, more than ever, it’s essential to honor your truth if you get a holiday invite,” she wrote to HuffPost.

“I’ve learned that unless I’m willing to be flexible, I will be miserable. We humans need to get better at writing our plans in pencil instead of Sharpie … ditch our fantasy of how things ‘should’ be and, instead, make the best of what is.”

– Kristina Kuzmic

If you give it some thought and feel comfortable “giving yourself the green light to go, there’s your answer ― go,” Wachter said. “Hopefully you can follow your needs regarding masks and distancing.”

Likewise, if you get a red light and would rather stay home, “hopefully you will honor that and be honest with the host,” she said. “I would hope that anyone who cares about you would want you to be true to yourself.”

And if you’re not sure about going ― yellow light! ― try imagining attending and see how you feel about it. Then imagine not going and try noticing your mental and bodily reaction. Oftentimes, one choice will feel like a relief compared to the other, Wachter said.

“The bottom line is, it’s always important to be true to yourself but nowadays, it’s essential,” she wrote. (Wachter’s plans? “My general plans are mostly to cozy up at home with my husband but I have always preferred that to socializing! We have one holiday invite and after the host told me we would be eating outside and that any non-vaccinated people would need to be tested, I accepted.”)

A few readers told us that everyone in their families have agreed to get a COVID rapid test before showing up to events.

What have other people decided to do? Below, 15 of our readers share their upcoming plans for holidays gathering during these admittedly still-weird times.

Responses have been edited for clarity and style.

1. “For my family, communication has been the key. Instead of making assumptions or just doing what makes me personally comfortable, I’ve had numerous conversations with various members of the family (individually, so that it doesn’t turn into a big argument among people who disagree with each other’s points of view), asking each what they were comfortable with as far as gathering for the holidays, what concerns they had and whether there were any extra precautions we could take to make them feel safer. This was especially important with older relatives who already have health concerns, and though vaccinated, don’t want to risk getting COVID.

One of the worst things about the last year and a half has been how much animosity and division it has caused among families and friends. Holidays are supposed to be about coming together and focusing on love and joy and gratitude, but it’s impossible to do that without open, respectful communication. We are still figuring out all the details, but will be doing a few different smaller celebrations instead of one big one. Instead of looking at it as a bad thing, I’m seeing it as a way to celebrate (and enjoy delicious meals) on multiple days instead of just one, and reducing stress and worry for family members who aren’t comfortable with big gatherings. I’ve learned that unless I’m willing to be flexible, I will be miserable. We humans need to get better at writing our plans in pencil instead of Sharpie, and to choose to ditch our fantasy of how things ‘should’ be and, instead, make the best of what is. (Even if ‘what is’ is completely different than how it’s always been.)” ― Writer Kristina Kuzmic

2. “My daughter is doing Thanksgiving at her house. Some of the people who will be there are not vaccinated, so my partner and I ― we’re both in our 70s ― will be doing a drive-by and pick up food, but we’re not going into the house.” ― Jean from Arkansas

3. “This holiday season will be our first family gathering inside four walls. No warm breeze that reassures us we are all fine because we are eating al fresco. Instead, I’ll be sitting across from two family members who refuse to get vaccinated. It might bring out the New Yorker in me, and I’ll have to do all I can not to stand up and yell, ‘Are you both morons?’ Or, perhaps the two decades living on the opposite coast might soften me to smile at them and say, ‘Dudes, the virus will find you, man.’ Either way, I’ll be sitting at a table with people I love. People I respect … for the most part.” ― Andrea Tate, a writer from California

One reader joked that she'll be sitting at a table with vaccinated and unvaccinated people she loves and respects, "for the most part."

lisegagne via Getty Images

One reader joked that she’ll be sitting at a table with vaccinated and unvaccinated people she loves and respects, “for the most part.”

4. “I’m an epidemiologist. Our family will be doing another ‘immediate family only’ Thanksgiving this year because the younger kids in our family are not yet fully vaccinated. We also have some immunocompromised family members, so we are doing everything we can to keep everyone safe until everyone can be fully vaccinated. As the COVID-19 vaccines were only recently made available to ages 5-11 on Nov. 2, 2021, children in this age group will not be fully vaccinated by Thanksgiving. To be considered fully vaccinated, the child needs to have the two shots in the series, and then a period of two weeks after dose two. Families should not have a false sense of security that their child is protected from only one shot. We are planning a big holiday extravaganza at the end of December when everyone, kids included, are fully vaccinated to make up for the lost time!

Some advice if you are gathering this year: Think of layers of protection from COVID like layers of Swiss cheese — each individual layer has holes in it and is not 100% effective by itself. But if we combine the layers (i.e. masks + distancing + outdoors), the protective layers are additive, very effective, and work together as a system. Families should keep this concept in mind when they are bringing their unvaccinated or partially vaccinated children to gatherings.” ― Katrine Wallace, an epidemiologist and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Illinois Chicago

5. “I’m the one traveling. I’ll be flying home from the East Coast to the Midwest. I’m fully vaxxed and boosted, I always wear a mask and I telework. I don’t know if I’ll go so far as to wear an N95 on the planes like I did last year, but I’ll still be double-masking. I’m only going home to my immediate family and staying within our household while I’m home. My whole family is vaxxed and they know I’m immunocompromised, so both parents will be boosted by the time I’m home. If I feel iffy after the flight home (i.e. if people in the airport are being so-so with masks, etc.), I may do what I did last year and wear a mask around the house until I can get a COVID test. I feel much better about going home this holiday than I did in 2020.” ― Sarah from Maryland

Some readers are sticking with the Zoom get-togethers or household-only gatherings this holiday season.

MesquitaFMS via Getty Images

Some readers are sticking with the Zoom get-togethers or household-only gatherings this holiday season.

6. “We will be skipping again for the second year in a row. My mama is immunocompromised, and so is my 4-year-old. Their safety is priority number one. We are all blessed to share a home, and since I don’t know the status of others, we will not be visiting anyone this year.” ― LeDonna from Illinois

7. “We’re having family together who have mixed private medical statuses but who do not treat the other like less worthy members of society. I would much rather enjoy my time with loved ones every chance I get than to live with regrets of not seeing them.” ― Erica from Ontario, Canada

8. “For holidays, I will stay home mostly and pick a day to go out with friends (all are vaccinated) for outdoor dining. With family, we have decided that unless there is an emergency, we are not flying to see each other. This is mostly based on my recent difficult experiences. I had to fly out of the country … to see a family member who had serious medical emergencies, and traveling was a very painful experience. I was stuck at airports in different countries, suffered many delays and flight cancellations, went through repeated testing in different countries as flight delays caused the tests to expire, and the schedule was entirely disrupted. For travel to family around the U.S., we have the same agreement: Fly only if there is an emergency. It’s not what we prefer, but it seems like we will have to make peace with the situation. Our families have elderly individuals, and young people have to be mindful about their health as well.” — Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University

9. “I am hosting Thanksgiving this year. It will be a small gathering, around 10 of us. We are all vaccinated and, if eligible, have received a booster. Although there is never a 100% guarantee of safety, I am a firm believer in balancing risk with reward. Family time is worth it.” ― Stacey Freeman, a writer from New Jersey

10. “This Thanksgiving will be the first time we’ve seen all of our grandchildren and children together since Thanksgiving 2019. All in all, we will have 16 people sharing Thanksgiving, ranging in age from 2 to 82. Everyone has agreed to get a COVID rapid test before showing up. We’ve all been vaccinated, other than the 2-year-old. But we still want everyone to be as safe and healthy as possible. I am grateful that our family is all in agreement on what it takes to stay safe.” ― Michelle Combs, who lives in the Midwest

“I’ll be sitting across from two family members who refuse to get vaccinated. It might bring out the New Yorker in me, and I’ll have to do all I can not to stand up and yell, ‘Are you both morons?’”

– Andrea Tate

11. “We were so excited this year that we would finally be able to spend the holiday with family. My husband’s family lives in Michigan. We live in New York state. All of us that are 12 and over are fully vaccinated. Those that qualify for the booster have gotten it. The two youngest are 6 and 7 and received their first dose last week.

Everyone was vaccinated as much as possible and has been masking and social-distancing. We were driving instead of flying to limit exposure to other people. But we received concerning news about the health of one of the Michigan family members recently. She has long COVID. All the Michigan family had COVID in the fall of 2020. They’ve been laxer about precautions than us.

Then last Thursday, five minutes before the bus was supposed to pick up our youngest, I got a call from her school. She had been exposed three days prior either in the bus or at school. We have to quarantine for 10 days: No more travel. We went and got our whole household tested. We are all negative, but still have to quarantine our youngest. My husband ran out to get a turkey and other Thanksgiving foods and the rest of the regular groceries.

We will be celebrating Thanksgiving just like last year, with our own turkey and all the trimmings in our own home, only seeing our family over Zoom. We have followed all the rules. Our whole family has. But we still can’t go see our Michigan family because they haven’t followed the rules designed to protect them and others. They think it is only about them. They have no idea what it’s like to hold a sobbing 6-year-old while she cries about missing school and her grandparents, thinking it’s her fault.” ― Elizabeth from New York

One reader, an epidemiologist, said her family is waiting to have a big blowout celebration on Christmas, once the kids in her family are fully vaccinated.
One reader, an epidemiologist, said her family is waiting to have a big blowout celebration on Christmas, once the kids in her family are fully vaccinated.

12. “We are treating this holiday season very similar to how we treated holidays before COVID. That being said, for holidays, we do tend to just interact with our immediate family. I got together with my family for the holidays last year, but there was a lot more anxiety around planning and making sure we’re being safe. This year, it feels like everyone’s stress level is lower. In the planning process, I could just sense how different the anxiety levels were compared to last year. For Thanksgiving, we are just going to be interacting with my family. I do feel safe about this because I will know everyone I come in contact with, and I know they have all been vaccinated.” ― Rebecca Leslie from Georgia

13. “Five of us are vaccinated, but there is a 5-month-old baby, so dinner will be outside on the deck in the cold to protect her. We have an outdoor heater and are using the grill on low as a large warming plate to try to keep food warm. Everyone will be wearing many layers to keep warm.” ― Terri from Washington state

14. “Our large Hispanic family is 95% vaccinated. The unvaxxed children have been around each other very often and we are going to spend Thanksgiving as normal. So far, everything is OK. However, if a family member is not feeling well, we will ask them to stay home. It’s not offensive; everyone understands that we will be together again soon.” ― Sandra from New Jersey

15. “About 11 years ago, my husband and I blended our families, my four and his two, who today range in age from 19 to 29. We will have all of our kids home for the holidays except our Marine. Since I am the one with the most health risks, we have agreed that everyone will get their booster shot before gathering. Those who are flying will also get a COVID test prior to their flight. We are still cautious and follow Washington state’s guidelines, which remain fairly strict.” — Elise Buie, divorce and family lawyer, Seattle

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