How to Celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa & New Year's During the Pandemic

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

celebrate christmas

The Spruce / Alex Dos Diaz

The topsy-turvy year that is 2020 has upended all sorts of activities, and celebrations for the winter holidays won’t look 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,” says food and lifestyle expert Chadwick Boyd. “Hanukkah and Christmas are going to be more intimate and contained.”

The hustle and bustle of getting everyone to grandma’s or wherever they traditionally celebrate won’t be the norm. A September Travelocity poll showed that 60% of respondents don’t plan to go home for the holidays. The uncertainty of COVID-19’s spread has led more people to focus on celebrating with those in their household—or to wait and see. 

“It’s really people’s comfort levels and the category of risk they want to take. They are waiting until the last minute, to see what happens,” says travel expert Jeff Traugot of Traugot Travel, Inc. in New York City. 

Expert Guidance

If your clan plans to hit the road this season, the Centers for Disease Control 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,” says Theoktisto. “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 and make memories in these socially distanced times? We talked to experts about celebrating the year-end holidays in 2020.

Celebrating Christmas

Coming together is the heart of this holiday. Whether you are gathering with extended family or keeping it simple at home, you can still carry on traditions. Staying home has given us all a little more time to try new things—or old ones. 

“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 6 or 7 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.”

Ideas for spreading cheer near and far:

  1. Try getting crafty. Arts and crafts have proven quite popular this year, especially embroidery. Create your own ornaments for the tree, using any medium you chose. Learn how to paint new adornments here.
  2. Watch holiday movies with the neighborhood. If the weather in your area cooperates, put up an outdoor screen or hang a white sheet on a garage door and invite neighbors to set up chairs (distanced, of course) and bring their own snacks.
  3. Volunteer your time. Distancing will cut back on in-person service work, but check with local food banks, religious organizations and community groups for opportunities to help brighten the season for those who might be in need or isolated during the holidays. 

Finding creative ways to include those you love 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,” says Sarah Chalmers, a Tulsa, OK, event planner. “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

The Festival of Lights, as it is known, takes place December 10-18 this year. Each night of the celebration, families light one candle on the special Hanukkiyah (Hanukkah menorah). The menorah is placed in the 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 JewItAtHome.com when the pandemic began. The site has more than 50 Jewish community groups worldwide offering ideas for family activities, cooking tips, Hebrew lessons 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.” 

Lutz says as Hanukkah nears, the site will see increased calendar listings for Jewish families wishing to celebrate at home this year. 

Celebrating Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa, celebrated from December 26 to January 1 each year, 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

Families and community groups traditionally gather each night to commemorate each principle, creating a space with traditional symbols such as mat (mkeka), candle holder (Kinara) and seven candles (Mishumaa Saba). Other primary symbols of Kwanzaa are the crops (Mazao), the corn (Muhindi), the unity cup (Kikombe cha Umoja) and the gifts (Zawadi).

Some cities hold large gatherings for the community, but the pandemic has taken those off the calendar. That doesn’t mean Kwanzaa will be forgotten!

Check the official Kwanzaa website for more detailed information about the history, traditions and procedures of the holiday and incorporate them into your seasonal celebrations.

Celebrating New Year’s Eve and Day

Saying goodbye to the old year and ringing in the new with hopes of better days ahead will resonate even more true for many this year. 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 (adult and nonalcoholic) for your crew and make a countdown to remember.

If you have young children, have a special countdown earlier in the evening for them and celebrate with the adults at midnight. And consider taking it easy on the libations. Drinking alcohol lowers your inhibitions, which can lead to a less-diligent approach to safety precautions such as distancing and mask-wearing. 

And 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.” says Boyd.

Plan ahead to ensure your 2020 holiday celebrations are healthy and happy.