As 2020 comes to an end, we’re faced with yet another impasse: the holidays. Thanksgiving marks the beginning of what will likely be a tense time for many people, especially this year. Despite the fact that COVID-19 cases continue to grow at an alarming rate across the United States, some families are still opting to have holiday gatherings between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. “You don’t want to be the Grinch that stole the holidays,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, in a livestreamed interview with Dr. Howard Bauchner, editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association.
That “Grinch” stigma puts many people in a bind. The reality is that staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from the virus. But if you’ve decided you’re going to skip the holidays this year, chances are you’re going to get some pushback. I received four consecutive text messages and one voicemail — all heated — when I first floated the idea that I wouldn’t be coming home for Thanksgiving. When I finally mustered up the courage to formally RSVP to my Thanksgiving host, she ignored my call, so I left a voicemail explaining why I don’t feel comfortable traveling anywhere right now — leading to her reaching out to my mother to vent (I guess?) and tell her it was “bullshit” that I was skipping Thanksgiving.
But I decided to keep my cool, despite all of it. To help ease any other potentially stressful reactions, here are some steps you can take to say no to the holidays like an adult (even if your host has a less-than-adult reaction):
1. Be confident in your decision
There’s no denying it: Certain family members can be a bit of a handful, especially around the holidays, and that’s why it’s important to make sure you’re confident in your decision before you let them know. Chances are your aunt (who definitely railed against Starbucks when it rolled out the red cup) will accuse you of having a “bad attitude,” that you’re saying “fuck it” to the holidays — to her personally! But you know that’s just not the case. If you need affirmation from a third party, here it is: It’s perfectly fine if you don’t feel comfortable traveling home and being around a large group of people in the middle of a third wave. Prepare to stand your ground, and you’ll be able to better explain yourself to your family.
2. Let them know as soon as possible
It’s never easy to say “no” to an insistent family member, but the sooner you do it, the better. (Bonus: Once you get it out of the way, you can use all that free time to plan your own holiday traditions.)
3. Try to bargain with facts
“Everyone is experiencing what some people call ‘COVID fatigue,’” says Dr. Dean Winslow, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care. “Most people want this to be done with. Unfortunately, cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations are still spiking in large areas of the country.” Appeal to your pushy host by pointing out the facts, leaving editorializing out as much as possible — because the facts are enough.
On November 15, officials reported the United States recorded one million new coronavirus cases in the preceding seven days, and cities across the country are shutting down for the second time. While the CDC offers guidelines to help protect individuals from the virus, experts predict that we will see an uptick in cases as people travel for the holidays.
The fact is that the more people you have under one roof or in one room generating aerosols, the more likely you are to create a high-risk environment. “Even if you have just one person who’s infected, they could potentially infect everyone in that room,” says Winslow. Stress that you don’t want to be part of that mix — for their safety as much as for your own.
4. Note the personal risk that traveling presents right now
According to infectious disease epidemiologist and infection prevention researcher Saskia Popescu, the travel many people will do — coupled with indoor gatherings that put people in close contact with those outside their household bubbles during a third wave — will most likely translate to additional cases. “I suggest people stay at home before and after the holidays to avoid not only exposures, but to be mindful that they are increasing risk by expanding their bubble,” she says. Tell your family that the personal risk isn’t worth it to you, and if it helps drill the idea home, point out what’s at stake if you get sick.
5. No matter how heated the conversation becomes, keep your cool
At this point, you’re going to feel the urge to make up an excuse. It’s understandable: You want out of the conversation. But remember that a lie could complicate things down the road. Simply remind the host: Everyone’s level of personal risk assessment is different, and you’d appreciate it if they could accept yours.
6. Compromise where you can
Not showing up for the holidays might go down smoother if you take the initiative and plan an alternative. Start by sharing recipes in a group text or over Zoom. As you get closer to the big feast, schedule some time to share the meal together virtually. If you’re rolling your eyes at the thought of scheduling yet another Zoom meeting, there are ways to make it fun: Plan to do readings of their favorite holiday short stories or children’s books, for example.
And point out that you can still technically eat the same meal together, if that’s important. If your family or friends live nearby, the CDC also recommends safely preparing dishes and delivering them in a way that doesn’t involve contact with others (leave the Tupperware on the porch), so you can still all be eating the same food, even if apart. (In fact, here are some recipes to help you get started on a stellar drop-off potluck.)
7. If all else fails, have a nice solo holiday
The holidays don’t need to include other people. If you abandon the idea of what a holiday should look like, you can make your own traditions. Order takeout, watch a movie, and maybe indulge in some online shopping — it’s been one hell of a year, and you deserve a break.