Families across the state are starting new traditions and adapting old ones to try to keep themselves and their loved ones safe from the coronavirus.
For more than five decades, Rich Spotts’ extended family has gathered at his grandmother’s Bucks County house to celebrate Christmas. With a series of tables stretching through the living room, generations would mark the special day with a traditional meal of turkey and all the side dishes, followed by an enormous spread of desserts.
“There’s tons of food,” Spotts said. “It’s very fun.”
Later, the crowd, often up to 50 folks, would sing carols and enjoy the 30 (yes, 30!) uniquely decorated Christmas trees that fill his 96-year-old grandmother’s modest home every holiday.
As it has with so many things, the coronavirus pandemic has dramatically changed the family’s long-standing traditions. This year, only a handful of guests will stop by Beatrice Barr’s lovingly decorated house.
Each will wear an N-95 mask to protect the elderly matriarch. There’ll be no eating, no singing.
“Family will stop by to say hello to grandma,” Spotts said. “If the weather cooperates, we’ll encourage everyone to be outside.”
Other friends and family got to see Barr and her Christmas trees via Facebook Live.
As the number of coronavirus cases remains significantly higher than in the spring, as well as hospitalizations and deaths, across the country, the Centers for Disease and Prevention has issued guidelines encouraging people to “celebrate the winter holidays at home with people who live with you.”
To gather with those who don’t live with you, the CDC said, increases the chances of getting or spreading the virus or the flu.
With that in mind, Peter and Evelyn Ridge, who live in Dauphin County, are foregoing holiday traditions with family, including their young grandchildren.
“Usually, my daughter and her husband and their two kids would stop by and we’d exchange presents,” Peter said. “Evelyn’s family and granddaughters would be here, too.” Not this year.
“When you have to give thought before going out to your mailbox, it informs the way you feel about seeing your loved ones,” Peter said. “We’ll follow [Gov. Tom] Wolf’s guidelines [to limit gatherings]. We understand them.”
Instead of their usual holiday gathering, they’ll take their grandchildren to Candy Lane, the light display at HersheyPark, and exchange gifts in the amusement park’s parking lot.
“Everything we do will be strictly outside,” Evelyn said.
Since the virus can infect anyone within 6 feet of someone who has it, whether symptomatic or asymptomatic, according to the CDC, being outdoors can reduce the risk of spread.
Laurie Melendez said her family’s Christmas traditions will look differently this year, too.
“We’ve been basically doing things earlier,” said the Bucks County hair stylist. While the five-member family normally would decorate their home and Christmas tree in the middle of the month, they had much of it done by Thanksgiving.
“We’ve already made the gingerbread houses—and eaten them,” said Melendez, with a laugh. “We’ve already baked cookies twice.”
She’s also cut back on shopping in-person and is doing much more online spending. The family’s annual holiday train trip to Philadelphia to see the Christmas lights is off, especially disappointing her 7- and 3-year-old children.
“I’m a homebody, anyway,” Melendez said. “But it’s sad not to be able to spend time with family.”
The traditional “big family brunch,” where normally 20-25 people would get together won’t happen this Christmas. Although it was a tough decision, “everyone understood,” Melendez said. That said, this is her family’s first year without her father and all will try to make sure her mother is not alone.
The CDC is strongly discouraging large gatherings, noting that the bigger the group, the greater the risk of infection. And, the national health agency stresses, “the use of alcohol and drugs alters judgement.”
With the loss of many traditions and the simple joy of being with loved ones missing, therapist Jeanne DiVincenzo said some might have an especially challenging holiday season.
“Grief for the past or sadness for what they will miss out on this year may be even more acute,” she said.
To help manage the “strangeness” of this year, DiVincenzo, who is a senior executive coach for Vector Group Consulting in Montgomery County, said she’s suggesting her clients make an effort to “honor some past traditions, even on a really small scale.”
Just putting up a favorite ornament, cooking a favorite food, or watching a favorite holiday movie can help, DiVincenzo said.
“They won’t feel that COVID took away everything and that they can choose to ensure they haven’t lost all the traditions they value.”