Plan to Make This Holiday Memorable and Special, Even If It’s Not Traditional

Cup of tea with gingerbread cookies

I wrote before about how I was dealing with the uncertainties related to the holidays.

Well, now those uncertainties have become certain.

Every year, we go to Kansas City to spend the holidays with my parents; every other year, my sister Elizabeth and her family come too.

But not this year.

I love traditions; I really get energy and cheer from seeing things play out in the same way over the years. I love to visit my hometown of Kansas City. I love to look at my mother’s gorgeous Christmas decorations. I love to go for long early-morning walks with my father around the grounds of the Nelson Atkins Museum. I love to visit the Plaza—to shop, to eat, and to see the lights. I love Winstead’s diner!

I’m reminding myself of wise words from my mother, that “The things that go wrong often make the best memories.”

I want to figure out lots of ways to make this holiday memorable and happy, even if it’s not going to happen the way I wish.

Here are some things I’m considering, as possible ways to create holiday spirit:

  1. Buy a paper-white narcissus — I associate that sharp, distinctive smell with Christmas
  2. Buy some evergreens — ditto
  3. Plan a binge-watch of every episode of the TV show The Office about their annual office Christmas party
  4. Watch a favorite Christmas movie. But which one? I love the original Miracle on 34th Street, but my daughters don’t care about it. Maybe Elf?
  5. Make our traditional graham-cracker houses, which we always make when we’re home in New York City
  6. Make gingerbread cookies, which we always make in Kansas City
  7. Play holiday music
  8. Listen to Charles Dickens’s masterpiece, A Christmas Carol — and stay tuned for a bonus episode in the Happier feed!
  9. Watch Hallmark Christmas movies

As you make your own plans, you might think about how you can…

Figure out the essence of the holiday for you. What foods, decorations, traditions are essential? Invoke your favorite smells, tastes, sounds, and sights of the holiday: decorate gingerbread cookies, drink eggnog, open gifts, put out evergreens, play music.

Decide how you’re going to handle gift-giving if you’re not there in person to exchange gifts. Many arrangements can work, but make sure everyone understands expectations. You don’t want to disappoint anyone, cause resentment, or feel bad about what you did or didn’t do. This may take more planning, too, if you have to mail gifts and can’t make a last-minute run to a mall.

If you can afford it, splurge a little to make your holidays at home feel special! Buy those extra twinkle lights, buy a big wreath for your front door.

Take advantage of where you are. If your pandemic plans mean that you’re not traveling, find fun, interesting things to do at home.

Watch your favorite holiday movies and play your favorite holiday music. Great for setting the mood.

Be grateful. Even if you’re disappointed, look for things to be grateful for. You don’t have to travel, or spend money on travel. Maybe you get to make that stuffing recipe that you’ve always wanted to try. And remember, this holiday will be memorable, because it will be so different from most holidays. So take the time to make those memories great.

Ideas I’ve heard from other people:

  • “Watch all of The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter movies in one day.”
  • “I just splurged on some gingerbread house kits from the local bakery, for my kids to decorate. I’ll pick them up in mid-Dec and the hard part (having the walls, roof, etc already built) is done. All that will be left is the fun part of decorating it! They were pricey, but it will be fun for the kids and I also supported a local small business!”
  • “My family usually has a gingerbread house building competition with themes (eg, houseboats, multi-use Live/work/play space, castles). Part of the competition is that at the end, you record a 2-3 minute promo video offering up the features of your house (eg, has a DJ booth or a hot tub). Grandma judges. Grandchildren always win. I realized this week that I could simply order the candy supplies from Kroger and have them delivered to each person’s house in advance so we could still do this virtually. So the competition is back on!”
  • “We can’t visit our family in NY and NJ but we are doing a cheese tasting zoom together through Philly Cheese School, should be fun!!”
  • “Have an Easter egg-type hunt in the apartment.”
  • “I already hung the Christmas lights in the window (much easier to hang lights from the inside of the front window than all around the outside!). Thinking of figuring out where all the “Christmas tree lane” neighborhoods are and driving around to see all the pretty light displays. Our Zoo does a Christmas lights event in Dec and this year they are making it a drive through.”
  • “My modest splurge is fabric ribbon. I found some with velvet dots and frayed edges. It’s a little thing that makes me extraordinarily happy.”
  • “One of the very few advantages that quarantine has had for some of us (including myself) is more free time. I’m taking the time this year to do some festive things that are more labor-intensive, since I’m finally able to — hand making Christmas cards, some more complicated baking, etc.”
  • “Consider supporting a local restaurant offering holiday menus – enjoyed safely at home OR take the time to teach family the recipes we haven’t had the time to pass down – via Zoom or the good ol’ telephone.”
  • “Make a gift to a food bank or homeless shelter. Pay for a meal for a front line worker.”
  • “This will sound stupid, but I’m going to watch more tv. I don’t watch really any tv, but I always feel more connected to society when I do. So I’ll pop in a Christmas movie while I’m alone in my apartment with the knowledge others are watching it too!”
  • “Games, karaoke, hygge fires and candlelight, blind taste testing different brands of store bought foods, outdoor hikes and campfires, painting together around the table.”
  • “I’m going to make more time for ‘Grandma story time’ on Zoom with our young grandkids, including the Christmas books I read to their father at their age. Plus, we will enjoy all the old traditions—tree already up, Christmas cake already made, cookies to come, music galore, and A Christmas Carol with Alistair Sims, A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (animated version with Boris Karloff) to round out the list!”
  • “I am definitely making more of an effort to send out Christmas cards this year. I think this year more than ever, people just need to know that we’re thinking about them since we can’t be with them physically. And I’m not just going to sign my Christmas cards with my name. I’m going to make sure that I sent off a special hand written note to each person.”
  • “I am learning more about ‘online’ games. They are kind of fun and silly but you can create a zoom meeting and join a game.”
  • “Sing carols from your balcony (we will play brass duets from our porch this year instead of playing in Christmas concerts as we do every year). Zoom watch Christmas movies or concerts with a friend instead of attending live performances. Go on a Christmas light walk or drive in your neighbourhood if the local parks/attractions aren’t able to run.”
  • “It’s the Season of Sacrifice. I am stocking up on audio books and planning on walking and listening, solo. Maybe a few tears, but remembering great holidays past. Grateful for sure.”
  • “I have decided to rechannel my holiday energies into Advent celebrations. I am Catholic and this period of joyful preparation is often overlooked amidst holiday parties and to’ing and fro’ing. Within my little bubble, I have researched evening readings and some activities to do now that we may have some extra holiday time together that otherwise would have been dedicated to attending events.”

What are your ideas for capturing the essence of the holiday spirit? Making the time feel joyful and special?



Like what you see? Explore more about this topic.

Interested in happiness, habits, and human nature?

Sign up for our weekly newsletter “5 things making me happy”.

Subscribe to Gretchen’s newsletter.

Every Friday, Gretchen Rubin shares 5 things that are making her happier, asks readers and listeners questions, and includes exclusive updates and behind-the-scenes material.