How to Celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and New Year's During a Pandemic

Now is the time to focus on old traditions and to create new ones

illustration of a family baking together

The Spruce / Alex Dos Diaz

The topsy-turvy year that is 2020 has upended all sorts of activities. And celebrations for the winter holidays aren't quite the same either. But change isn’t always for the worse. 

“It’s really a return to a simplicity of the holidays, how they used to be. We’re going to have smaller moments together with our trusted inner circles,” food and lifestyle expert Chadwick Boyd says. “Hanukkah and Christmas are going to be more intimate and contained.”

The hustle and bustle of traveling and getting together with family and friends isn't the norm for 2020. A September Travelocity poll showed that 60% of respondents didn't plan to go home for the holidays. The uncertainty of COVID-19’s spread has led more people to focus on celebrating only with those in their household.
“It’s really people’s comfort levels and the category of risk they want to take," says travel expert Jeff Traugot of Traugot Travel Inc. in New York City. "They are waiting until the last minute to see what happens.”

Expert Guidance

If your clan plans to travel, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers precautions to lessen the likelihood of catching COVID. “You’ll want to check the latest number of cases in the area of your destination,” says Dr. Mary Theoktisto, an infectious disease specialist with Baylor Scott & White Health. “Have officials in the area enacted restrictions or guidelines for people entering the region?”

And even if you haven’t seen loved ones in many months and long to be together, certain groups should strongly consider staying put. 

“It is important to remember that anyone can potentially contract an illness, specifically COVID-19, and spread it to others,” Theoktisto says. “It is important that anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19, is waiting test results, has symptoms, or has been exposed to someone with COVID-19 in the last 14 days does not travel to, or join in, in-person holiday celebrations.”

So what can people do to make merry memories in these socially distanced times? We talked to experts about celebrating the year-end holidays in 2020.

Celebrating Christmas

Coming together with loved ones is at the heart of Christmas. Whether you are gathering with extended family or keeping it simple at home, you can still carry on traditions.

“My Sicilian grandmother has these cookies called tadals, which are basically Italian wedding cookies,” Boyd says. “She used to make huge batches for the holidays, but they are really time-intensive so I haven’t made them in six or seven years. But I am going to make them this year with my two baking-loving nieces because I have not shared with them what my grandparents did with me when I was a kid during the holidays. Whatever heritage that we come from, this year is the invitation to do that with our younger folks.”

Besides focusing on traditions, get creative and try something new. Arts and crafts, such as embroidery, have proven quite popular in 2020. So for Christmas, consider creating your own tree ornaments. Or, if the weather in your area permits, put up an outdoor screen or hang a white sheet on a garage door. Invite neighbors to set up chairs (distanced, of course) and bring their own snacks for a Christmas movie night.

Furthermore, finding creative ways to include loved ones in your celebrations can go a long way this year. “Make a handwritten note, a handmade gift, or a baked treat, and do a drive-by visit,” Tulsa, Oklahoma, event planner Sarah Chalmers suggests. “That way loved ones still get to see everyone, but you are in and out in an hour or so. Making sure the mental health aspect is considered is a huge morale boost for hardships that isolated people have gone through. You just have to be smart about it.”

Celebrating Hanukkah

On each night of Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, families light one candle on the special menorah. The menorah traditionally is placed in a window to show its light. 

“It’s all about bringing light into the world,” says Adam Lutz, assistant rabbi and director of education for Temple Emanuel Beverly Hills. “In December, literally the days are short. It’s the darkest time of the year, so we light each candle on the menorah. We usually have each member of the family light one.”

Lutz and another rabbi created the site Jew It at Home when the pandemic began. The site has more than 50 Jewish community groups worldwide offering ideas for family activities, cooking tips, Hebrew lessons, Hanukkah celebrations, and more. 

“I knew there would be this need [for the site] with all the isolation," Lutz says. One big change he sees in faith-based groups is a higher engagement online from people who otherwise might not engage in some religious activities. “Just like with the Christian and Muslim faiths, it’s a breaking down of walls. You go to what’s close to you, but now you don’t have to. There are no boundaries.” 

Celebrating Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa, which stretches from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, was created to meld cultures and traditions for Black people around the world. Dr. Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966, with each night of the celebration centering on one of seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

Families and community groups traditionally gather each night to commemorate each principle. Celebrations can include music, dance, poetry, art, and food. Some cities hold large gatherings, but the pandemic has taken most of those off of the calendar. However, there still are options to celebrate.

The official Kwanzaa website offers detailed information about the traditions and procedures of the holiday, which can be incorporated into a safe celebration at home. Some options to celebrate from home include making traditional African dishes, supporting Black-owned businesses, and finding live-streamed Kwanzaa events featuring speakers, music, and more.

Celebrating New Year’s Eve and Day

Saying goodbye to the old year and ringing in the new year with hopes of better days ahead will resonate even more true for many as 2020 comes to a close. Instead of heading out to a big event, staying home and celebrating responsibly are this year’s hallmarks. Try some new appetizers, create special beverages for your household, and have a countdown to remember. If you have young children who won't be staying up until midnight, do a special countdown earlier in the evening for them.

Also, consider taking it easy on the libations if there's a social distancing component to your celebration. Alcohol lowers your inhibitions and might cause you to be less careful about your mask-wearing, hand-washing, and distancing.

You can welcome 2021 virtually as well. “I think we will connect more on Zoom and on television and other media with other people outside of family to get that party connection with others,” Boyd says.