Cross Country Checkup

Thinking outside the box could offer a 'refreshing change' this holiday season, says psychologist

For many Canadians, the winter holidays offer a time to connect with friends and loved ones — but because of COVID-19, it won't be business as usual this year. Clinical psychologist Rehman Abdulrehman says it's a good time to try new ways of celebrating.

Traditions offer comfort, but may be impossible to coordinate during the pandemic

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Rehman Abdulrehman, creating new traditions may be the key to happily celebrating the holidays this year. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

As the holiday season approaches, it may be time to throw tradition out the window.

"Sometimes what might be rigidity, or might be traditions, give us great comfort, but there can be a really refreshing change when we take control of that and try to think outside the box," said clinical psychologist Dr. Rehman Abdulrehman.

For many Canadians, the winter holidays offer a time to connect and celebrate with friends and loved ones. In the midst of a pandemic, those connections can feel more vital than ever.

"The research on psychological resilience and good mental health shows that social support is actually a critical factor to building psychological resilience and good mental health," Abdulrehman, director of Clinic Psychology Manitoba, told Cross Country Checkup host Ian Hanomansing.

But because of COVID-19, the holidays won't be business as usual this year. 

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam has already indicated that gatherings should be kept small, and that Canadians should "think twice" about celebrating with people outside their household.

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So it's not surprising, Abdulrehman adds, that many may be feeling blue in the lead up to the holidays.

"As we rely so heavily upon particular holidays to be able to engage with people socially and build that connection, that's all being threatened and taken away, unfortunately, due to this pandemic," he said.

'Find new ways of doing things'

Instead of sticking to traditions, Abdulrehman says that this year is a good time to try something new.

"We've been trying to find new ways of doing things [during the pandemic], and that will certainly have to be the case over this holiday season as well," he said.

Coordinating a virtual get together — complete with delivered meals and even scheduled dance breaks — is one suggestion.

"Typically, psychologists would say less screen time is better, but I think in these times I would say we have to utilize that screen time to engage socially with each other," said Abdulrehman.

He also encourages people to "take a page" from Canadians who do not celebrate Christmas.

"I like to look at the Jewish community, the Muslim community, the Hindu community who have holidays over the course of the year, even pre-COVID, and they found ways to find a way to make those holidays special for them because they weren't always able to take the time off or get together with people," he said.

Health officials say that this holiday season will be unlike previous years, with smaller gatherings and limited travel, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

'Defunding Christmas'

Abdulrehman also offered a controversial suggestion. He thinks it's time we start "defunding Christmas."

"What I mean by that is not that we don't celebrate Christmas, but we take our eggs and we don't put them all in a single basket," he told Hanomansing.

Rather than trying to cram all our major social gatherings into a single festive part of the year, it should be spread out over all 12 months.

Too often, he says, people feel obligated to live up to a Norman Rockwell-esque vision of what the holidays should be, with a perfect family dinner and joy around the table.

"This focus on Christmas as the one time of the year where this happens places an undue amount of pressure on people," Abdulrehman said.

"The truth is, it is not that for most Canadians."


Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Steve Howard.

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