How to Cancel the Holidays Without Ruining Them

It’s time to have the conversation with loved ones. Here’s how to do it gracefully.

A glistening roasted Thanksgiving turkey sticking out of a trash can
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by JMichl/E+ via Getty Images Plus and blueshot/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Most of us should probably cancel Thanksgiving—Christmas, too, for good measure. In case you missed it, things out there with COVID aren’t looking so good, and it’s increasingly clear that dinner parties and other intimate gatherings are playing a big part in the growing “second wave.” Traveling to celebrate the season with other people, at a chilly time that’s most conducive to indoor activities, seems less and less wise. And yet, a survey released in late October found that 61 percent of Americans who replied expected to spend Thanksgiving with people who don’t live in their households; 90 percent planned to eat inside. Hopefully, some of these people will change their minds—if not, we seem to be in for a world of trouble.

It’s not that I don’t understand the difficulty of this particular pandemic adjustment. Unless you were already looking for an excuse to avoid “going home,” canceling beloved holiday gatherings is a much bigger emotional lift than simply wearing a mask at Kroger or Target. Prior to 2020, the only times I’ve missed traveling to my parents’ house for Christmas were the year I was on a school year abroad program in high school and the year I was due to have a baby right after the holidays. The usual round of activities—the cocktail party where we invite old family friends to play Taboo around the wood stove; the hour of singing carols with my extended family; Christmas breakfast, with sticky buns and grapefruit—pours right into all the good parts of my brain that were formed in childhood, refilling them, giving me a year’s worth of serotonin to draw from. I get stressed by Christmas travel, I get stressed by Thanksgiving planning—but it still feels like I need Thanksgiving and Christmas, or the new year cannot start. This year, I’m slowly coming to terms with the idea that I will have to go without—but how do we reckon with the loss, both internally and with our loved ones?

“One feature of this that’s very present is grief,” Matt Lundquist, a psychotherapist with Tribeca Therapy in New York City, said of the decision-making process around holidays in a COVID year. “So many different aspects of grief. Grief at a missed opportunity, grief relative to time that feels increasingly precious as parents get older, children get older, we get older.”

Because the situation is so emotionally fraught, Lundquist said that it would be important for people to enter into family negotiations around the issue of the 2020 holidays with a clear understanding of what they want. In almost all cases, Lundquist said, you and any other decision-makers in your household should make up your mind first about what you want to do, before talking to the other households involved in the negotiation. “Be really resolved,” he said. (A few weeks ago, Slate published a piece by Emily Oster aimed at helping people with holiday decision-making during COVID; if you’re still undecided, the ideas in there might help.) Lundquist suggested, if you’re partnered, talking through the situation with your partner first—maybe even writing down what you’ve agreed upon and emailing it to each other, so there are no surprises that might emerge after contact with the other negotiating parties. “I think that can help with resolve, which is useful for everybody,” he said.

“This is going to be a disappointing end of year for a lot of people in a lot of ways,” Lundquist said. “One of the things I think adult children need to learn, and sometimes need a lot of help to learn is, it’s not your job to please your parents, and they can be disappointed. Simply let them be disappointed, and you could be disappointed, and we need to make room to feel the sadness and grief of that disappointment, which is different for everyone.” He thought of this  need for openness as something of a silver lining of the pandemic: “It’s forcing people to have more direct conversations with their partners, and their older parents, than they might usually have.”

If you’re grieving a lost holiday, it may seem almost impossible to be upbeat. But try to be positive in talking with your family about what is going to happen this year, said Jane Adams, a social psychologist who works with parents and their adult children. You could say to your parents, she proposed: “We’ve had 40 Thanksgivings together, and it will be sad to miss this one, so we have to find ways to replace that and keep from feeling lonely or blue or miserable during this, and here’s what I’m thinking we’re going to do.” There are, of course, many ideas people have come up with to create a sense of distant social connection during the pandemic. For the holidays, Adams suggested things like saying grace together over Zoom, watching football on TV simultaneously while texting about the game, or making drive-by drop-offs of pie, if you live in the same town—all of which seem kind of thin and sad to me at this point in the year, if I’m being honest. But another suggestion Adams had resonated more: “Maybe make plans to do something really special next Thanksgiving,” she said. For us, “next year in Jerusalem” might look like planning a good long spring or summer visit, vaccine willing.

There’s another approach, if you have the kind of parents who enjoy a bit of humor: Adams suggested referencing the parts of skipping Thanksgiving, and Christmas, that might not be so bad. Nothing too heavy, but if you have the right kind of relationship with your parents, you might say something like “Hey, at least you don’t have to clean the house, because we’re not coming,” Adams said. Her fridge came to mind—“I don’t have go through my refrigerator and throw out everything that might be within a day of its sell-by date so my kids don’t come and do it for me,” she laughed. (I do this to my parents too! Another day, another middle-aged cliché.)

But all of this cheerfulness feels a bit like lipstick on the proverbial pig. I realize that a big part of my epic sadness over the missed holiday has to do with reckoning with mortality—my parents’, but also my own. Having lived a happy life, so far, I have spent a lot of 2020 wondering: How much more of this will I get? Harbingers of future loss seem to be everywhere. As my own little family unit knits closer, thanks to all this pandemic togetherness, I’ve been projecting forward into the future, wondering how I’ll feel when I’m older, and am separated from my child, the way my parents are now separated from me. (“A lot of parenting is about grief,” Lundquist said—boy, is it ever.) Entertaining thoughts of what might happen when the older generation in my extended family passes, I’ve also been pre-grieving that change. Making the decision to miss Thanksgiving and Christmas this year seems ominous, like an early rehearsal for a lonely future.

This, I think, is what they call spiraling—and I wonder how many other people out there, trying to gather the courage to torpedo visits this holiday season for the good of the next, are feeling this. For you, and for me, Jane Adams has some advice: Put these thoughts to the side. This is just one year; it’s not the end. “You can’t think of it that way,” Adams said. “You might think about that every time you see your parents. ‘Is this the last third Thursday? Is this the last Christmas?’ ” In order to do the right thing, she said, I—and maybe you—need to set that grief aside, at least for now. “We stare into the abyss, and when the abyss stares back, we turn away,” Adams said. “You can’t live your life that way.”