A Parent’s Guide to Celebrating the Holidays During the Pandemic

Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development, offers parents helpful tips on how to create meaningful experiences this holiday season

By Merri Rosenberg ’78

family making a gingerbread house

This holiday season, as the world still grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, will look and feel quite different. So much for houses bursting with family gatherings, whether it’s for tree-trimming parties, latke-making Hanukkah get-togethers, or Kwanzaa story-telling sessions with beloved relatives. In a year when everything has been upended, how can parents make these holidays memorable and joyful for their children? Tovah Klein, the Toddler Center’s director, has some ideas — and she shared them with Barnard Magazine for its inaugural Parenting column

Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development and adjunct associate professor.

How do you suggest parents approach this holiday season? 

Think about what the holidays are about — family, connections, joy. These are pretty simple concepts. While adults may be missing what they’re used to, kids don’t necessarily respond the same way. The holidays can be different — it doesn’t have to be a loss. It’s how to create those connections of warmth and beauty. Children respond to the love and coziness in the rituals that parents set up.

What are some of those rituals?

The story here is that the beauty of the holidays is what you create at home. Maybe you had lots of family around in the past. Recognize that children may miss their grandparents and cousins. Remember that what kids miss may be different from what adults miss. Children might actually like being home on Christmas morning. Set up Zoom for them to see their grandparents and cousins. If you usually visit the tree at Rockefeller Center, maybe you could look at it online while you’re eating holiday cookies that you’ve baked together. Have a Zoom where you sign on with your friends and make cookies together, or have a Zoom latke party with the cousins, where you share an old family recipe and make them together.

It’s about recognizing the old and embracing the new, such as making homemade decorations to hang up for your holiday celebration. Younger children will embrace whatever you’re doing. Thanksgiving showed us that it could be really fun. 

What else can parents do to make these holidays special?

I suggest creating a special breakfast and setting a special table. There are lots of rituals around food. It can be cooking food together and setting that special table, where younger children can make decorations. Holiday symbols are really important.

With the gifts, rather than just presents under a tree, have a scavenger hunt for children; that also works for one of the nights of Hanukkah gifts. Pick a family movie, drink hot cocoa — anything that’s about bringing your family together. Make cards for each other. You don’t have to buy expensive gifts. In a pandemic year, everything is about simplicity.

Are there ways to acknowledge the losses of the pandemic during the holiday season?

The main point is recognizing that there has been a loss. There will be an overlay of who’s missing because of COVID-19, and missing people because you can’t see them. You can include those people who have died — or if you’re simply missing them — by telling stories about them or having children talk about what they did with that relative. You can cook a favorite dish that reminds you of that relative or look at their photos together. You can talk to your children about the hope that next year will be better.

How can these new rituals reflect your family’s values?

Think about ways your children can give back. Even if older kids can’t volunteer in the same way, they can contact a local organization to see what’s needed. Maybe they can bake cookies and drop them off for food packages that are being donated. There are organizations with wish lists from school-age children or children in temporary housing that your kids can help contribute to. Send cards that your children make to their grandparents and teachers. It’s very simple: A 3-year-old can do it and a 15-year-old can. It’s about making connections.


Latest IssueSpring 2023