How the Pandemic Helped Re-Write Holiday Traditions

Liberated by the loss of tradition over the last two years, some are forging their own celebrations — or skipping them altogether.,

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In the past, Lexi Ivarsson, a content creator who lives in Boise, Idaho, felt she had limited options for the holidays.

She would pack her four kids, aged 3 to 7, in the car and drive to either her husband’s parents’ house nearby or her family’s house near Provo, Utah. It was a tradition so ingrained, she even saw family members last year for the holidays, in the middle of the pandemic and against the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But this year she decided she’d had enough.

She and her husband, Brendan, don’t share views with his family on almost anything. “Our thoughts on religion and politics and the way we should treat each other and ethics is completely different,” said Ms. Ivarsson, 28. “Sitting down at a table together is hard because of that.”

To get to her parents required a 10-hour drive. “We get along with them, but it’s a big drive to do with little kids,” she said.

So this year she decided to celebrate Thanksgiving sans family. Instead she and her husband invited her best friend and her family over to celebrate (and share the cooking).

“We had such a good time, and there was zero drama to it and zero obligation,” said Ms. Ivarsson. “I think the pandemic shifted something that made us realize if we don’t want to spend time with family, we don’t have to.”

She now plans to celebrate Christmas with friends as well.

People across the country are saying no more to holiday obligations. After the drain of the pandemic, some are choosing to skip the stress of travel or of spending hours around a table with people they don’t entirely enjoy. Even those who like their families are choosing to be apart, opting instead to be with friends who live close to them or to go on far-flung trips they’ve always wanted to take.

“We’ve all finally realized we don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been,” Ms. Ivarsson said.

Throughout the pandemic, many Americans have realized the value in taking care of themselves and doing what they want to do, not what’s expected of them.

Megan Vice’s family lives on Long Island and wants her to come home for the holidays, but for the past few years, spending Christmas there has been a bummer. “My parents don’t even have a tree anymore,” said Ms. Vice, a 31-year-old musician who lives in Los Angeles. “I need to be doing things that make me happy, and for me, Christmas is not an enjoyable experience. As much as I love my parents, this holiday does not make me feel good.”

This year, she will fly to Chiapas, Mexico, for a 10-day silent meditation retreat in the mountains. “It’s going to be intense, but I think it will be meaningful,” Ms. Vice said. “The pandemic has made me crave not just new experiences, but ones that are intentional.”

The pandemic has taught other Americans that virtual connections can be as meaningful as in-person ones. If that is the case, they figure, why spend all the money and time to travel to be with family in person?

Tracy Lee, 40, who works in financial tech in Manhattan, loves visiting her parents and siblings who live in Montana, Arizona and Indiana. But Thanksgiving, when airfare is generally more expensive and the airports are packed, is not an ideal time to fly there. “I would rather see my family when we can actually do things and not feel forced,” said Ms. Lee, 40. “Why not meet up in August and enjoy a nice week together and not force this holiday on all of us?”

When she was away from her family over the pandemic, she learned how easy it was to keep in touch with them virtually. So she decided to do that for the holiday this year instead. “We played a trivia game with them, some version of Heads Up,” she said. “It feels so natural to interact virtually since the pandemic. This is now how we make the holidays work.”

Thom Tran, a stand-up comedian in Los Angeles, said the pandemic normalized virtual connections so much that this year he felt free to celebrate Thanksgiving away from his parents, who live in New York, “completely without guilt.”

“My dad is a 70-something man who now embraces the iPhone like I never expected,” said Mr. Tran, 42. “He now FaceTimes me on a biweekly basis,” he said. (Mr. Tran spent Thanksgiving serving meals to the homeless, then eating dinner with 25 new and old friends.)

For others, skipping family gatherings last year helped them realize the get-togethers are not that important.

Tony Hurt, 31, a software engineer in Columbus, Ohio, usually spends Christmas with his large extended family at his aunt’s house, also in Columbus. “I buy gifts for everyone and I usually spend $600 to 1,000. And it’s not even about the money. It’s so stressful buying gifts for so many people.”

The pandemic helped him have a breakthrough. “Since we weren’t able to get together last year, I realized how much money I saved,” he said. “It made me realize it’s not the worst thing in the world to skip spending a day with family I see a lot anyway.” Instead he’s going to Puerto Rico by himself for a week to relax on the beach and listen to live music.

“I would have never dreamed of missing Christmas before the pandemic, but now it makes sense,” he said. “I am so excited about my trip.”

The pandemic also turned friends into family. When they couldn’t be with their biological relatives, some created a family of friends and neighbors who lived closer.

Caragh Creswell, who works in fashion in New York City, chose to celebrate Thanksgiving with one of her best friend’s families. For Christmas, she is hosting friends at her apartment.

“We have all gone through such a huge, huge emotional roller-coaster together,” said Ms. Creswell, 29, who is originally from Australia and still has family there.

“What the pandemic has taught me is that family doesn’t have to represent those that are blood related. Family is made of those people who support you and love you,” she said. “So when I think about who I want to spend the holidays with, it’s those people.”

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