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Yes, 2020 has been a long and trying year. Yes, the holidays will be different this season. But we have tips for safely adapting traditions, from festive meals to cookie exchanges to celebrating solo

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Though this time of year seems to bring with it a plethora of holiday survival guides, the concept has an entirely new meaning this year. Like the rest of 2020, this Christmas will undoubtedly be like no other before it. For many of us, living through a pandemic has triggered a massive shift in priorities and perspective, and is bringing into sharp focus all that is important about the holiday season. Without our usual packed schedules, pressure to entertain and other unnecessary distractions, we can concentrate on celebrating the people in our lives, whether we’re with them or not. Here are a few strategies to find the best in our pandemic holiday situation. We got this.

Gift giving

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Companies of all sizes have been hit hard by the pandemic, but small businesses in particular are struggling to stay afloat, and many rely on the holiday shopping season to get them through the rest of the year. Undoubtedly, 2020 will continue to be a banner year for online shopping – fortunately, most retailers, even the small ones, have e-commerce strategies to allow customers to order online for delivery or curb-side pickup. And if you don’t want to shop, homemade gifts are personal, unique and a great way to involve kids.

Practice safe shopping
  • If you order online, try to do it well in advance; Canada Post and other delivery services are likely to be swamped, and deliveries may be slower than usual.
  • Consider having gifts shipped directly to the recipient, rather than have them come to you to wrap and ship again.
  • Making gifts is its own festive activity. Make something edible and package it up in jars, tins, mugs or any other containers you can find in the basement or at the dollar store, or craft something that draws on your talents.
  • A heartfelt, handwritten letter can be as special a gift as any, particularly to generations that grew up in a predigital era.
  • Digital recordings – a mini Christmas concert, singing carols or even just recounting memories of the year – can be a fun project for kids and a treasure for far-away relatives (and for you, too, down the road).


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Decorating is a creative outlet for many, and even making small changes to your surroundings, such as trimming the tree and decking the halls, can not only inspire a festive mood, but be a physical reminder of the passing seasons – something we need right now in the absence of other annual events. Mariam Munawar is known for her creative tablescapes; the Toronto-based PhD student shares her passion on her blog and Instagram page (@maryamoon_design). “One way to keep festivity alive is by setting the table at home,” she says. “Even if you’re dining by yourself, or with immediate family, having a well-set table can elevate the experience, and allow you to enjoy the happiness of the season.”

Deck the halls, even if you’re home alone:
  • Munawar suggests composing your table in two parts: the individual place settings, and the centerpiece.
  • Use charger plates to add depth and visual appeal to your table; build on it with a dinner plate, salad plate, and/or bowl.
  • Play around with colour and texture. Don’t feel obliged to use a matching dinnerware set – try mixing a solid coloured dinner plate with a patterned salad plate or bowl.
  • Create a menu and some place cards to take your dining experience from average to extravagant. Print them out at home or at your local printer, or write them out yourself.
  • Add a garland to the middle of the table, and some tapered candles, staggered in and around your garland – they have a way of creating a dreamy ambience.
  • Glam up the light structure above your table: suspend ornaments from it, or string it with a garland (just make sure it doesn’t pose an electrical hazard).
  • If you don’t want to remove your centerpiece when serving dinner, set up a separate table and have everyone serve themselves, buffet style. This is also more COVID-19-friendly, if you’re with your extended bubble; have hand sanitizer at one end to use before handling serving utensils, or designate one masked person to serve everyone, cafeteria-style.
  • To decorate the rest of your home, upcycle what you have – spray paint old jars with gold and dip in glitter for a gorgeous DIY vase you can place on a coffee table or mantle. If you have an old sequin top or dress, turn it into a cushion cover. And give bare walls a festive facelift by hanging DIY wreaths you can create using large brass rings or hula hoops spray painted gold.

The big feast

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Most holiday celebrations involve a big meal, particularly at Christmas. For many, the act of preparing it is as significant as the meal itself. This year, there’s no need to skip a beloved dinner just because you’re on your own, or with a smaller family unit. If it’s part of your holiday tradition, make it all and freeze leftovers, or package them up to share with neighbours. If you’re not into the cooking part, there’s an opportunity to support your local hospitality industry, which has been among the most devastated by the pandemic – many restaurants and catering kitchens have come up with take-home menus that need only be reheated.

Eating in
  • Have your family share the same meal from a distance with a door-drop potluck. Assign courses or dishes, and have each participant drop a container or oven-ready dish on each other’s doorstep: a batch of freshly baked buns, salads, roasted veg, oven-ready scalloped potatoes or vegetable gratins (you can find disposable aluminum containers at the dollar store) or dessert. Large proteins (roast turkey, baked ham, prime rib) can be part of the swap, or each household can take care of their own main event.
  • If you’re celebrating from a greater distance, co-ordinate menus and have everyone prepare the same recipes – it’s a good opportunity to learn family favourites, or try something new and compare notes.
  • If you’re with a small but extended bubble, serve your meal buffet-style with hand sanitizer on the table, and have everyone spread out and eat on their laps, rather than crowd around a table and pass family-style dishes from person to person.
  • Serve individual appetizers, such as devilled eggs and satay on disposable bamboo skewers; serve spiced nuts and other nibbles in disposable Dixie cups.
  • Consider serving a one-portion version of your usual meal, such as turkey pot pie, that could be baked in individual dishes and eaten with just a fork – no need to manoeuvre utensils on your lap.
  • Opt for compostable disposable plates, cutlery, cups and napkins to avoid handling used utensils … and skip the dishes.
  • Support a local restaurant by ordering its to-go holiday menu; if everyone orders from the same place, you can share the same meal on Zoom or FaceTime; if you order from various restaurants, you can talk about the different dishes on your tables.

Family gathering

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Gathering restrictions will perhaps have the most impact on the way we celebrate this holiday season. With limits on travel and in-home visits in place, we’ve all become accustomed to connecting in other ways – over video chats, or across sidewalks and front doors. “If in-home gatherings are permitted, limit the number of people you’re with, and practice distancing, masking, and frequent hand-washing,” says Dr. Raj Bhardwaj, a family physician in Calgary. “Spread out in the house rather than sitting around one table, and serve all your food at once – no grazing – so that people wear masks most of the time. If the weather allows, open windows for air flow, and consider an after-dinner walk rather than sitting around indoors, which is a higher risk.”

Get it together
  • Consider visiting outside over a distanced walk (with hot chocolate or tea to stay warm), tobogganing, ice skating or cross-country skiing.
  • Go carolling. Draw up a map of family and friends and, well-distanced from the sidewalk, sing (or karaoke, with a portable boombox) while they stay warm in their doorway. Be mindful of keeping even more distance, even if outside, if you’re singing.
  • If the weather permits, decorate a tree in the yard or a nearby park with environmentally friendly decorations (paper/popcorn/cotton/wood/birdseed), and exchange gifts outdoors at the warmest time of day.

Cookie swapping

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Cookie swaps have become a much-loved holiday tradition among those who like to bake and spend an afternoon visiting over tea or cocktails, and a platter of treats, of course. It’s multitasking of the very best kind: The idea is that everyone makes multiple batches of one type of cookie or bar, enough for everyone at the party to bring home a dozen or so, and every attendee ends up with an assortment to last through the holiday season.

A cookie swap, reimagined
  • Do a door-drop cookie swap. Bake and package up your cookies in small boxes or other containers, ensuring you use a spatula to transfer them from baking sheet to cooling rack to box. Wear a mask while preparing and packaging, to be on the safe side.
  • Trade logs of frozen or refrigerated cookie dough, wrapped in festive paper and tied with ribbon if you’re so inclined, for recipients to slice and bake. This is less work, takes up less space and dough has more longevity than dozens of baked cookies that must be stored all at once.
  • Load up the car, crank up the holiday tunes, pick up a hot chocolate or eggnog latte and have everyone drop cookies on the doorstep of others participating in your swap on the same day. Maybe sing a carol while you’re at it.
  • If you have an opportunity to combine a swap with an outdoor activity such as skating or tobogganing, have everyone bring their boxed treats to swap at the rink or on the hill.

Cocktail partying

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It’s not just the big family gatherings that won’t be the same this year. Our December calendars, typically filled with office parties, school performances and neighbourhood open houses, are much emptier. But there are ways to connect that can be more memorable than your usual plans, with no pressure to vacuum up the dust bunnies first.

Good things in small packages
  • Embrace winter and gear up for a small and well-distanced backyard cocktail party around a fire. Serve hot toddies and Irish cream-spiked coffee out of insulated travel mugs, and give each person (or couple) their own treat box or s’mores kit.
  • Plan a virtual cocktail hour with some friends. Co-ordinate drinks, and have each person choose and shake up a cocktail they haven’t tried before. Ahead of your virtual party, drop off boxes of snacks or cheese and charcuterie, and share a playlist.
  • Teleparty (formerly Netflix Party) synchronizes videos and adds a group chat to Netflix and Disney+ (plus Hulu and HBO if you’re in the U.S.), so you can cozy up and watch your holiday favourites with pals in real time.

Celebrating solo

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Between travel and gathering restrictions and individual risk factors, more Canadians than ever will be celebrating alone this year. This could be particularly hard on isolated seniors. “All people who are out and about and capable need to keep their eyes open, think about who their neighbours are and take action,” says Dr. Heather Palmer, cognitive well-being advisor for Amica Senior Lifestyles, a senior living residence and community. “Even small actions like a smile, a distanced conversation, or a handmade gift says to seniors, I see you, and I care.”

If you’re home alone
  • Focus on those parts of the holiday season you enjoy most, whether it’s cooking, decorating or watching classic movies.
  • Don’t limit time together to outdoor visits and FaceTime calls; have friends and family on speaker phone to chat while you’re baking or wrapping gifts to make the house feel fuller.
  • Regular walks are good for physical and mental health – and even small interactions with others doing the same can have a big impact. Change your route for new perspectives.
For others who are home alone

Dr. Palmer suggests dropping off a series of small packages, such as activity kits, articles of interest or family memorabilia. She also suggests pulling out old recipes and preparing them to deliver to loved ones.

She suggests involving the residence team to help facilitate and deliver special packages for family and friends in senior living residences. Provide the team with talking points for any sentimental items that could spark stories and memories.

Send links to TED talks, documentaries, symphony and theatre productions and other entertaining and informative content to seniors using technology – they’ll appreciate content they may have missed, and it will provide conversation points if it’s something you watched, too.

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Globe and Mail subscribers can register to join Julie Van Rosendaal on Sunday, Dec. 6, at 12 p.m. ET for an online family bake-along as she mixes up some classic holiday cookie recipes.