People wear face masks as they pose next to a Christmas display in Montreal, Sunday, November 22, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

People wear face masks as they pose next to a Christmas display in Montreal, Sunday, November 22, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

How to tell family their Christmas gathering is too risky and you’re not going

Dr. Hurst says it’s best to frame the conversation from a place of care, stressing safety precautions.

We see it in movies and hear it in songs: protagonists overcoming obstacles of all kinds to reach their goal of being home for the holidays.

The pressure to attend family events isn’t new. But during a global pandemic — with COVID-19 cases rising and public health officials urging against indoor gatherings — there’s a lot more risk attached to our normal traditions this year.

Telling loved ones we don’t want to attend holiday gatherings can be tricky —there might be hurt feelings on their end, and guilt on ours.

But Dr. Nancy Hurst, an Edmonton-based psychologist, says those conversations are needed in the coming weeks as we deal with “the pandemic that stole Christmas.”

“It’s already tough (to miss gatherings), but it’s especially tough at Christmas because we have so many expectations,” Hurst said.

“And if you have people with different perspective on COVID — those who feel strongly that it’s not safe to gather, and others who feel it’s Christmas and we should make an exception — it’s going to be even tougher to say no.”

Hurst says it’s best to frame the conversation from a place of care, stressing safety precautions.

More stubborn family members may require extra explanation, but Hurst says it’s best not to get defensive.

“You don’t need to justify your perspective,” she said. “If you say: ‘I don’t feel safe, I still care for you, I look forward to having that spring get-together,’ the relationship is likely strong enough to endure that.”

Dr. Roger McIntyre, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Toronto, says a tough conversation about holiday plans may be easier to digest if it’s presented as a postponement rather than a cancellation.

Promising news of COVID vaccine trials this month could soften the blow by convincing people the pandemic is nearing an end, he said.

In the meantime though, this holiday season could present a “terrible dilemma.”

“People have legitimate concerns about their physical safety, but they want to see their family, and they’re probably feeling quite lonely,” he said. “So you have a scenario where you need that social connection and you can’t have it.”

McIntyre says it will be easier to talk about altered holiday plans if it’s presented as a collective idea. And if the entire family lives in a COVID hotspot like Toronto, for example, it might be easier to convince everyone to adhere to local public health guidance.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford urged residents on Wednesday to celebrate the holidays only with those in their own households, while Quebec Premier Francois Legault announced last week a plan that would give his province a mini-reprieve from restrictions by allowing gatherings of 10 over four days.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, meanwhile, encouraged residents on Tuesday to find alternatives to in-person gatherings.

Regional differences in the levels of COVID risk only complicate the situation, McIntyre says. If the prevalence of the virus is low where the gathering is happening, some family members may not understand the hesitation of others to attend.

Dr. Vanessa Meier-Stephenson, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Calgary, says travel during the holiday season is what’s worrying her most.

“At this point in time, there are no safe (in-person) Christmas gatherings,” she said. “There is risk in being physically in the same room with family members who are not in your usual cohort. … And the bottom line is that it really takes one person to start an outbreak.”

While experts have been saying for months that indoor gatherings can be dangerous, Dr. Esther Greenglass, a psychology professor at York University, says it might be hard to remind family members of that when it comes to a significant holiday like Christmas.

READ MORE: Christmas will be different even if Santa is ‘probably’ immune to COVID, says B.C. top doctor

Getting together to socialize and share a meal with loved ones can be an “emotional experience,” she said, and after eight months of pandemic-related restrictions, some are just tired of following the rules.

Hurt feelings can arise when families decide to go through with gatherings, leaving those who objected out of the mix, she added.

“If people don’t get it, you have no control over it, but you don’t have to take it personally,” Greenglass said. “And that’s the hardest part, not to see this as a personal rejection.”

While the holiday season can be tough for many people even without a pandemic, McIntyre says the added isolation of this year has him particularly worried.

He suggests we make more of an effort to keep connections open in order to fight off loneliness and “find our sense of human meaningfulness, which is being threatened like nothing else right now.”

He also stressed that professional help is available during the pandemic to those struggling with serious mental health concerns.

Greenglass says those who can should embrace creative, virtual options for holiday gatherings, and suggested making Zoom dinners more personal by sharing food and drink recipes beforehand, or dropping off pre-made dinner portions on porch steps.

“That lets people know you’re not rejecting them, that you want to see them, and that you’ve thought enough about it to come up with alternatives,” she said.

“COVID doesn’t have to be the Grinch that stole Christmas.”

READ MORE: Top doctor urges Canadians to plan safe holidays as new COVID cases continue to rise

Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

ChristmasCoronavirusHolidays

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Court of Appeal in Vancouver. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
Man convicted of assault, unlawfully confining woman pregnant with his child loses court appeal

Victim tells court he drove her to Guildford parking lot after he’d ‘grabbed’ her neck and she fainted

Peter and Stephanie Chung. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
Surrey philanthropists presenting $285K in scholarships on Saturday

Drs. Peter and Stephanie Chung over the past nine years have awarded more than 500 students, in memory of their son Joseph

Brandon Nathan Teixeira, charged in connection with a fatal 2017 shooting in South Surrey, is to return to court Feb. 2, 2021. (Canadian Press/File photo)
Pre-trial conference set for accused in 2017 South Surrey killing

Brandon Nathan Teixeira set to return to Vancouver court Feb. 2

Businesses continue to struggle under COVID-19 restrictions as the pandemic reaches the one-year mark. (B.C. government)
Another 564 COVID-19 cases, mass vaccine plan coming Friday

15 more deaths, community cluster declared in Williams Lake

A specialized RCMP team is investigating a suspicious trailer, which might have connections to the illicit drug trade, found abandoned outside a Cache Creek motel. (Photo credit: <em>Journal</em> files)
Police probe U-Haul trailer linked to illicit drugs left outside Cache Creek motel

Hazardous materials found inside believed to be consistent with the production of illicit drugs

Premier John Horgan leaves the podium following his first press conference of the year as he comments on various questions from the media in the Press Gallery at B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, January 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interprovincial travel restrictions a no-go, Horgan says after reviewing legal options

The B.C. NDP government sought legal advice as concerns of travel continue

Gem Lake Top, at Big White Ski Resort, seen at Jan. 8. (Big White Ski Resort)
Big White cancels $7.3M in lift tickets, accommodations due to COVID-19 orders

Since November, the ski resort has been forced to make several changes

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Darlene Curylo scratched a $3M ticket, BCLC’s largest ever scratch and win prize. (BCLC)
Kelowna woman in shock after winning BCLC’s largest-ever instant-ticket prize

Darlene Curylo couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw the amount of money she’d won from a scratch ticket

While each person has different reasons for becoming homeless, a UBCO study shows they learn through their interactions with different services to perform ‘as homeless’ based on the expectations of service providers. (Contributed)
Kelowna homeless forced to ‘perform’ for resources, says UBCO study

One participant in the study said ‘It is about looking homeless, but not too homeless’

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette takes the royal salute from the Guard of Honour as she makes her way deliver the the throne speech, Wednesday, September 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Gov. Gen. Julie Payette resigns, apologizes for ‘tensions’ at Rideau Hall

Payette, who is the Queen’s representative in Canada, has been the governor general since 2017

Grounded WestJet Boeing 737 Max aircraft are shown at the airline’s facilities in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, May 7, 2019. WestJet will operate the first commercial Boeing 737 Max flight in Canada today since the aircraft was grounded in 2019 following two deadly crashes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Passengers unfazed as WestJet returns Boeing 737 Max to service on Vancouver flight

After a lengthy review process, Transport Canada cleared the plane to return to Canadian airspace

Most Read