“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” or at least that’s what Andy Williams sang long before COVID-19 became a reality.

Mary Jo Kreitzer, the founder and director of the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota, acknowledges the worst and most dangerous days of the pandemic are ahead, and after dealing with restrictions and adjustments for the past several months, it’s common to feel “COVID fatigue.” The two together could make these last week of 2020 especially challenging.

Dr. Craig Sawchuk, clinical psychologist at the Mayo Clinic, recognizes the difficulty of two values — keeping loved ones healthy and spending time with loved ones — being at odds with each other. After months of keeping interactions at a minimum, it’s not unexpected that people crave social interaction more than ever right now. But from a public health standpoint, the usual in-person festivities like shopping, travel and large-group gatherings won’t help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

It might feel like a “lose-lose” situation to some, but despite the challenging times, both Kreitzer and Sawchuk believe it’s possible to prioritize mental health and avoid public health risks while navigating the holiday season.

For Kreitzer, enjoying the weeks ahead is about having the right mindset. That means thinking about the holidays not as worse than other years, but different. One piece of advice Kreitzer offers, even in a non-COVID year, is to “prioritize what’s important and let go of perfectionism.”

Many of the usual holiday outings that lead up to Christmas are off the calendar this year, so Kreitzer considers this season an opportunity for individual households to embrace what matters most to them.

“I think people have gotten so creative,” Kreitzer said. “People are planning to cook together, have meals together, open gifts together and attend virtual events together. I think it’s a time to focus, instead of what we can’t do, with what we can do.”

Many people who are lonely or without close family nearby may struggle during the holidays regardless of the pandemic.

Considering the number of those who have died this year, from COVID-19 or other causes, grief and loss will weigh heavily on many families as they experience traditions without their deceased loved ones for the first time. Keeping this in mind,

Kreitzer encourages families and individuals to embrace the giving spirit and remember to reach out to others in need by dropping off food or flowers, making a personal connection, shoveling snow or calling someone who lives alone. For those who want to give back to the community, she recommends supporting local food shelves.

Sawchuk, a professor of psychology, also encourages being open and flexible to doing things differently. Not only that, but staying optimistic both for today and for the future.

“It’s been hard, and we have to acknowledge that it’s been hard,” Sawchuk said. “It’s not normal what’s going on, but we’re going to get through this. Even look at what’s been developing with a vaccination and other therapeutics making their way out. There are reasons for optimism.”

One point of contention for a number of families this holiday season is whether or not to gather with family or friends outside one’s immediate household. As Sawchuk mentioned, this is one of those matters in which two values come

into conflict.

Sawchuk offers a couple of pointers for those who want to say “no” to gathering in person but feel anxious about that conversation. He encourages first of all to have the conversation early rather than waiting until the last minute, and to remember “this really isn’t a debate.” Instead of arguing a case, he promotes simple messaging that ends in a period — not an exclamation point or a question mark. Simply saying, “We love you and we would like to spend time with you, but this year we’re choosing to sit this one out,” and repeating that statement if necessary, is sufficient.

“This isn’t a court of law,” Sawchuk said. “You’re not trying to present all the evidence for or against people. When you’ve made this decision, it’s important to stay with that. You may have to agree to disagree.”

No matter someone’s response to the pandemic, Sawchuk discourages throwing guilt around, and to set boundaries with those inflicting guilt.

“I know human relationships are complicated, but it boils down to, ‘Is it more important to be right, or is the relationship more important?’ ” Sawchuk said. “…We love these folks, so of course we want to be able to spend time with them, but when we’re made to feel guilty, when that guilt rises up, we may cave in and act outside our values, and that doesn’t help the situation at all.”

For those bothered by others’ choices relating to the pandemic, Kreitzer said, “I think it’s wise to focus on what’s within our control and influence. We do have control over what we do and what we can do with the family. Honestly, we can’t control what everyone else is doing within the community.”

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