Illustration for article titled This Is the Year to Ramp Up the Holiday Magic, Damn It

Photo: Eric Francis (Shutterstock)

The other day, my 10-year-old said something that broke my heart a bit: “This pandemic has taken all of our holiday traditions away from us.” Maybe it hasn’t taken all of our traditions, but it certainly has taken a lot of them. We couldn’t travel to see my family for Thanksgiving. The large Christmas party my in-laws normally host for extended family and friends is canceled. Going all the way back to Easter, every holiday and birthday has looked fundamentally different this year.

But as I told him: The good thing about traditions is that they’ll be there waiting for us next year. In the meantime, just because the holidays don’t look the same this year doesn’t mean they can’t still be magical. If you’re struggling with how to bring the holiday magic this year while still staying distanced from loved ones, here are a few ideas to get you going.

Gaze at some lights

If you’ve never piled the family into the car to drive around and look at holiday lights, this is the year to start. You’re likely to spot more lights than ever before because folks could barely wait until after Thanksgiving to start stringing up the holiday cheer this year.

If you already are a family that takes an annual drive (or three) around the neighborhood to soak up the displays, it’s time to take it to the next level. Check your local news website or Facebook communities to identify where the biggest displays are this year. Go ahead and plan a rudimentary route that will take you to a few of the biggies, but also allow yourself to wander a bit as you discover extra-festive neighborhoods along the way. Let the kids take turns picking a new direction to go on the hunt for holiday spirit.

You also absolutely need to pack up cookies or candy canes and thermoses of hot chocolate to enjoy along the way—and blast that Christmas music as you drive.

Let them be Santa

Kids love to give gifts, and kids love to be in on a secret. So I propose that instead of making fewer Christmas cookies this year—because who is even going to eat them; you’re not seeing anybody—you should make more. Then, package them up and go around to your neighbors’ homes. Set the container of cookies on the ground, ring the door bell, run, and hide while you watch them discover their holiday surprise.

(Give the neighbors advance warning, though, so they can act extra surprised and pretend not to see you crouching in your obvious hiding spot.)

String lights up in their room

If your kids need a little extra holiday cheer, and they don’t already have decorations in their bedrooms, consider bringing the festivity directly to them. You could go all out and put a mini-tree in their room and decorate it together—or you could simply string some lights around their doors and windows to create some extra special holiday ambiance.

Start a new tradition

Maybe there’s a family tradition you always wanted to start but it got lost every year, buried under all the holiday parties and school concerts and general time-consuming mayhem of the season. Lucky for you: That’s not a problem this year! This year, you have time to watch one classic Christmas movie every night in the week leading up to the big day. Or maybe this is the year you actually buy those matching pajamas for the whole family to wear on Christmas morning so you can take some ridiculous family photos in front of the tree.

Make gingerbread houses from scratch—and then tear them apart to eat them. Make homemade ornaments for family and friends. Have a family slumber party by the tree. Finally make that magical reindeer food. You can remember 2020 as the year you first started this new tradition.

Get extra fancy

Maybe it feels like there’s no point in dressing up if you’re not going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house this year, and if you choose to stay in those matching red and green jammies all day, I won’t fault you. But if you want to up the magic a bit, have everyone get extra dressed up for the fanciest of holiday dinners. I’m talking poofy dresses and bowties, fabric tablecloths and candlelight.

The kids will remember the year they were stuck at home for Christmas, missing their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins—but they could also remember how that Christmas dinner was the fanciest dinner they’d ever had at home.