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We answered your questions on safety, loneliness and anxiety during the holidays

Collage of gifts, a vaccine, a surgical mask and a blank December calendar against a green backdrop all surrounded by letters and stamps as a border.
Becky Harlan and Trish Pickelhaupt/NPR

OK, so a bunch of us took the holidays off last year, right? Instead of a whole thing with family, I opted for a chill hangout with a few friends outdoors and a small dinner with my bubble.

But this year? Now? For better or for worse, it feels as if the holidays are back in full swing — despite the newest variant hanging over our heads.

We're here to help with the worst of it. We asked you to share your questions on getting through these next few weeks, and you all definitely came through. So we asked licensed clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior to help guide us through some rough winter patches involving family, money, loneliness, and of course, safety.

That one unvaccinated family member

My future father-in-law is not vaccinated and refuses to get vaccinated. I know my fiancé also doesn't like the situation, but I also know he is done trying to convince his father. It's not my family, so I feel like it's not my place to stand up to him when his own kids won't, but I also really don't want to get COVID.

Talking to the vaccine-resistant folks in our lives is a challenge on its own, and when compounded with the pressure to stay on the good side of your future family members, that conversation can be tricky to navigate.

Something important to keep in mind is that you have a right to speak up. "You shouldn't have to sacrifice your own health in order to get along in this family," says Bonior. "The expectation of not spending time indoors with people who aren't fully vaccinated is a very reasonable one."

Now, it's easy to go with the flow for the sake of avoiding "drama." As Bonior says, it's not the people who are listening to experts and doing what they can to stop the spread of COVID that create drama — rather, "it's the people who refuse to abide by that" that are causing trouble.

Of course, this is further complicated by the fact that the person in question isn't your immediate family, but your partner's. This means it's necessary to check in with him about how you're going to respond to this situation together. When drawing clear boundaries with your in-laws, it helps to have a united front to ensure your thoughts are respected. If the two of you can't come to a consensus on confronting your father-in-law, it might be better to just skip the meet-up altogether.

Christmas? More like Christma$

Every year, my in-laws and brother-in-law get everyone very expensive presents for Christmas and expect the same in return. But my husband and I are on a tight budget. When it comes down to it, I tend to find gift-giving wasteful and harmful to the environment anyway, and I'm considering proposing no gifts (without much hope this idea will stick). Hoping for some advice on how to navigate the holidays with this disconnect.

Gift-giving is so wrapped up into the holidays that some people have a hard time envisioning the season without it. For that reason, Bonior suggests holding back on going full-on no gifts and instead trying to find a middle ground. Obviously, that hasn't gone well so far in this scenario, but maybe the best approach is to have an open conversation about what makes gift-giving so important to the in-laws in question.

Bonior says some people may even feel "threatened" by the idea of eliminating gift exchanges, because it makes them feel like they aren't celebrating a "true holiday." So finding a way to hammer down the deeper meaning of these presents is especially important if you're trying to renegotiate a long-time family tradition.

It might also help to be upfront (to whatever degree you feel comfortable with) about your financial status. Some people need it spelled out for them — "Hey, we really can't afford a big gift exchange right now. How about this year we just focus on quality time together instead?" No one should have to put themselves in a precarious financial situation over a holiday get-together. As Bonior says, "We can show meaning in so many other ways."

Here's another one:

My partner and I have a wonderful and stable relationship that is more than a few years old. I'm physically disabled and gender queer. I thought I got along with my sweetheart's family when we first met, but a few months later, they started bashing me to my partner. My instinct is to just avoid them, but I don't want my partner to have to choose between our relationship and their family. How can I respond to snide comments or confrontations when we're together?

This is another instance in which an honest conversation between you and your partner is crucial. Their family's aspersions towards you can fall into the realm of toxicity within your relationship if not dealt with, and it's incumbent on your partner to offer protection, whatever that may be. For instance, you and your partner can decide early on that you will only take a certain number of digs from family members. After that, it's time to leave.

A game plan like this can work well, especially if it's communicated to the person in question each time, says Bonior. "You want sort of the warning: 'Hey, that's the second time you've mentioned their gender identity. We're going to have to leave, if that happens another time. Please, let's be respectful here.'" The other option is a more zero-tolerance approach, which may mean not going to the next family gathering at all.

Loneliness during the holidays

I'm left to spend the holidays away from my mom and my sisters. I feel miserably alone. How do I feel less lonely?

Bonior says we are often pressured to feel happy during this time of year. Instead, she suggests, "Let yourself say, 'This is a really tough holiday for me, and maybe, I kind of want to tune out certain aspects of the holiday altogether.'"

And while you're doing this, it's helpful to know that you're not the only one. As you can glean from our letters so far, there are many folks out there choosing to skip out on gift exchanges, family dinners and other social obligations. So allow yourself to feel lonely, knowing that you're not alone.

Reaching out to a friend is another option. Maybe you can make plans to look forward to, like seeing a movie or grabbing dinner. "A lot of times when we reach out to friends... that really helps assuage some of our loneliness, because we feel like we have a purpose," says Bonior.

Mismatched holiday energies

A twofer! Here's one side of the coin:

Every year, I dread the holidays. From mid-November to Jan. 2, I am miserable under the pressure that I feel from all sides, society, media, friends, family. It's just too much for me. The problem is that my attitude ruins this time of year for my wife which isn't fair to her. How do I fake it so that she can still enjoy this time of year?

And here's the other:

My husband's family situation has never been great and the holidays are emotionally tough for him, so he doesn't like to celebrate. On the flip side, my family is big on celebrations and we love the holidays. We are celebrating Christmas by ourselves this year. I want to decorate and make new traditions, but I'm not sure how to approach my husband.

First thing's first — it's not about faking it. Instead, it's about "building something new" that works for the both of you, says Bonior. "I think the middle ground really does consistently come down to saying, 'What are your values here? What's most important?'" Which is to say these holiday lovers may have to dig deep to figure out what really drives them each year to inflate their outdoor snowman and cut down the Christmas tree. Is it sentimental? Does it make you feel more connected to your loved ones? Maybe try to think of other ways you can evoke these treasured feelings. For instance, if Christmas makes you feel nostalgic for the excitement of childhood, maybe you can find joy in helping younger members of your family write their own letters to Santa Claus.

Alternately, the "holiday haters" should ask themselves whether consumerism is what's really at the heart of their year-end ennui. Is there a way to show your love and affection for someone in a way that doesn't involve online shopping or going to the mall? The answer is yes.

"Try to get rid of the external trappings," says Bonior, "and ask the deeper question of what values am I trying to represent here? And how can I connect with my partner on that level?" Regardless of how you choose to spend this time of year, just remember that there's no "correct" way to celebrate — every time-honored holiday tradition was once new.


The podcast portion of this story was produced by Andee Tagle. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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