The holidays are going to be different this year, not just in the way worship services look. The idea of “going home for the holidays”—which is a completely secular but major emphasis of Thanksgiving and Christmas for many American Christians— must adapt to the ongoing pandemic. Some of us might find ourselves on a different page from extended family about taking precautions and feel unsafe gathering while others keep traditions without us.
How do we cultivate a meaningful holiday, not centered on getting together with family?
How do we share some traditions virtually?
How do we try new practices, to center our faith especially at Christmas?
Church leaders have long navigated these dynamics, since many of us are working on the holidays. We have “Christmas with the relatives” on Epiphany instead or an unsung tradition of pizza in the church offices between services on Christmas Eve. If we preside over a Thanksgiving worship service—or need to be present for the first Sunday of Advent when it falls on the weekend of Thanksgiving—that holiday hasn’t been a Norman Rockwell painting of extended family gatherings either.
We asked in the Learning Lab how church leaders have adapted in the past or anticipate celebrating these holidays differently this year with their household or extended families. Here are some themes and ideas gathered from the lab and elsewhere:
Congregations are sending home kits to create Advent wreath or calendar rituals at home. Mindful lighting of candles or singing favorite hymns at home brings in-house some of the faith practices we usually do at church. Without having to do what the church wants, we can consider what our favorite songs, parts of the story, or family stories are and focus on those this year.
Moving Traditions Online
Learning Lab participants noted the anticipated Zoom schedule of conversations with different family groups and what they hoped for during that time. One grandparent hopes to hear the children tell the Christmas story, instead of him reading it to them. These stories could be recorded for posterity too. My family plans to make pierogies with one set of relatives and favorite cookies with others, all virtually. Another Learning Lab participant described how she is finding games for their “family game night” that can be played together online.
What About the Food?
Admittedly, the major association with Grandma’s house during the holidays is seeing and enjoying the expected foods and scents wafting through the air. Families may share treasured recipes, and one congregation is figuring out how to share the cornucopia one member makes with the Sunday School every year, the weekend of Thanksgiving. This may also be the year we give ourselves full permission to eat something different: vegetarian Thanksgiving, for example. Meaning may be found in asking why we eat what we do, and how those choices impact the world around us.
Take It Outdoors with Local Friends
Instead of gathering around the hearth, this year perhaps we warm ourselves at outdoor bonfires. One leader who will not be traveling described her plans for an outdoor hike and socially-distanced bonfire with neighbors who are staying local. Who knows? Outdoor physical activity could become a staple of celebrations for years to come.
Extend an Invitation to Simplify
The Nativity, especially, is a story of simple circumstances: a couple welcoming new life without their support system or the comforts of home, but the assurance that God is among us is there. Perhaps this is the year to simplify the plethora of gifts, travel and bustle, until all we are left with is wonder at this story. Instead of worrying about fitting everything in, the unusual necessity of letting go of some of the trimmings of the season this year could be an invitation to only keep what we truly need, to experience that God is with us.