The holidays are usually a time for family gatherings, shared meals, gift-giving and large New Year’s celebrations.
But this year health officials recommend avoiding indoor activities and large crowds to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, which has caused more than 320,000 deaths in the United States. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said holiday gatherings should have fewer than 10 people.
“Ten may even be a bit too much,” Fauci said. “It’s not only the number, it’s the people who might be coming in from out of town. You want to make sure you don’t have people who just got off a plane or a train. That’s even more risky than the absolute number.”
As a result, religious gatherings, holiday parties, trips to the mall and even visits to Santa Claus have all been put on hold. And, for many people, spending the holidays alone for the first time can lead to anxiety and feelings of isolation. But experts say accepting that things are going to be different this year and finding safer alternatives to stay connected can help.
Agustin Carrillo, 33, is a Chicago native who grew up on the city’s Southeast side. In 2018 he officially became a priest within the Catholic church. During his studies Carrillo moved to Guatemala and then Fresno, California, where he is currently a priest at St. Anthony Mary Claret Church.
“I’m a Claretian Missionary and for me home is living with my fellow Claretian missionaries,” Carrillo said about being away from his parents and three siblings. “I won’t be alone this holiday season. I will be with the same people I spend all year with, my Clertian family.”
He emphasized that even though he is away from his family in Chicago, he is not disconnected because he communicates with family and friends by phone or video conferences.
Carrillo noted some people are always alone for the holiday, including those who left their home country in pursuit of a better life in the United States.
“They live this every year. They don’t get to see their families, in some cases they can’t travel to visit their home because of their immigration status,” Carrillo said. “We hear their stories, but this year I think people are becoming more aware.”
Doctor Inger E. Burnett-Zeigler, a clinical psychologist and Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University, said the holidays can be stressful in a normal year, but now there’s the added stress of uncertainty and health risks.
“People are really having a hard time with being isolated and not being able to physically see their family and their friends,” Burnett-Zeigler said. “I think it’s really important that even in the current context of COVID people take advantage of the opportunities that they have to find some sense of connection.”
For Carrillo, this pandemic holiday season is an opportunity for added reflection.
“The pandemic has shown us what’s important, not to take our families for granted, the ability to travel and other commodities we enjoy,” Carrillo said. “And this year we can reflect on what it means to be human. We can reflect on our physical interactions and realize how much we depend on non-verbal communication to connect to each other.”
Araceli Gómez-Aldana is WBEZ’s morning news producer. Follow her @Araceli1010.