Months ago, when the pandemic was just taking hold, you might have looked to the end of the year with some hope that things would be better by then.
Maybe your family asked you to come home for the holidays, and you booked plane tickets. Maybe you dreamily talked to your grandchildren or cousins about being together under one roof as snow gently fell. Surely things would be under control by December, right? Right?
Sadly, we know better now, and holiday plans are filled with the fear that we may be putting ourselves, and those we love, at risk. As public health officials urge us to stay home for the holidays, many people are having to forgo traditional gatherings and decline invitations from those they love the most.
But saying no to family can be hard, so we asked some experts for advice on the best way to send your regrets.
They said that the usual approach for declining invitations — thanking the hosts for their kind invitation and expressing regret that you cannot attend — may not suffice with loved ones upset that, after a year filled with grief and isolation, the holidays will be more of the same. Family members can feel rejected when their loved ones break the news that they won’t be coming this year, especially if they had been discussing plans for months.
“People do get upset,” said Jodi RR Smith, president of Marblehead-based Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. “And it’s easy for us to take their being upset as there being anger pointed at us, where what that emotion really is, is disappointment.”
Smith suggested a simple approach that focuses on kindness, something along the lines of “Normally I’d be so happy to go, but right now I’m trying to make sure that we’re all OK so that we can all celebrate together next year.”
“In the world of good manners, less is more,” Smith said. “So we don’t provide the reason, because the second you provide a reason, you provide an opening for negotiation.”
If conversations become tense, try to disengage. Politely say goodbye and end the call or e-mail chain, cool down, and reach out again a day or two later to tell the other person how much you value your relationship.
“You have to be OK with people not understanding,” Smith said. “You might have Aunt Tilly who doesn’t understand that this [the virus] is a real thing. And it is not your job to convince her; she simply invited you over for dinner. You can tell her you are happy to be included, and you are so sorry, but you cannot come this year.”
People who usually travel for the holidays — and have enough money to cover their own needs this year — can donate some of the money they would have spent on their trip to a worthy cause, she suggested. That can be a family-wide activity as well.
Although it’s kind to let your relatives down easy, it doesn’t mean they will necessarily understand why you have decided against visiting, said Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute and a co-host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast.
“Saying it nicely doesn’t make it any easier,” Post said. “It’s not magic. There are real emotions and real confusion sometimes on the other end, and it’s important to be prepared for that.”
She suggested kindly telling hosts what your plans are — something like, we have decided to celebrate with just our household this year — and sticking to it.
Difficult as it may be to break from tradition, Post said she has tried to look for opportunities for creativity.
That could mean putting more care into giving gifts or creating holiday cards, she said. It could mean fun, interactive projects, like collecting a set of recipes and challenging other households to a bake-off. Maybe a family can mail a gift from one home to the next, adding to it as it goes.
Post, remembering holidays where an aunt would get scratch tickets for the whole family, said she is thinking about doing the same this year: sending everyone inexpensive tickets and watching family members play over Zoom.
“Sometimes I think we worry so much about missing the usual, that we forget about what something different could be,” Post said.
But along with the creative approaches, it’s important to acknowledge that saying no to people you love can produce feelings of guilt, even when it’s the safest thing to do, said Nieisha Deed, founder of PureSpark, a mental health resource organization.
“Even when we make good decisions for ourselves, sometimes we do have guilt associated with that,” Deed said. “That’s sometimes coming from not being comfortable with saying no.”
The word “no” can be difficult for people to say and hear, Deed said. She suggested a gentler alternative — something like, I’m looking forward to seeing you next year, or maybe we can catch up remotely — to cushion the disappointment.
“That’s why I say it’s so important to use a language and tone that’s true for you, so that you do not damage that relationship,” Deed said. “Because relationship supports are important. I don’t want people to lose those supports when we’re in the middle of a pandemic and we’re lonely.”
Still, there can be joy in smaller-than-usual gatherings, and even relief in avoiding the social demands of the holidays, just for one year.
Deed said it can be helpful to use humor, either to communicate your feelings or to validate your introverted tendencies. She has enjoyed watching Elsa Majimbo, a 19-year-old comedian from Kenya, whose video about trying to hide her glee in canceling plans has ricocheted across the Internet.
“I wanted to meet up, but ooh! It’s a pandemic!” Majimbo quips. “I would have let you come to my house, but like, ugh! Pandemic!”
While hopes for a normal holiday season have been dashed, the disappointment is widely shared, promoting a sense of unity. And with a vaccine on the way, reunions will not be so complicated forever.
“Everyone’s kind of going through it in some way, shape, or form,” Deed said. “I have a feeling people will understand. I have a feeling people will be compassionate.”
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 617-929-2043.