For many Canadians, being safe this holiday season means being apart from family

·6 min read

There's a caveat in the popular holiday standard I'll Be Home for Christmas — "if only in my dreams" — and it's taken on additional meaning as many people prepare to spend the holidays apart from family.

With COVID-19 case numbers rising across the country and a province-wide lockdown in Ontario coming into effect Saturday, returning to one's hometown to see family and friends is an unlikely and unadvisable prospect.

Across the country, public health experts have urged Canadians to to limit — or even avoid — large Christmas get-togethers this year to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus. That's caused anxiety for some who've had to make difficult phone calls to parents and loved ones to say they won't be home.

This Christmas is the first that some young people won't spend at home. Their families say they understand, given the severity of the pandemic. Some have tried to mitigate the disappointment by sending care packages and presents. Others have made elaborate plans for Dec. 25 phone calls and virtual reunions.

Mollie Roy, a 25-year-old who's staying in Vancouver instead of returning to her Ottawa hometown, admits she felt tempted as she saw people risk a reunion and go home. She was away from home last Christmas due to work, but this year felt different.

"You see other people doing it and you're like, 'Well, why shouldn't I do it if other people are doing it?' But that's not really the right attitude, I don't think, to have at this time of year in general and just about this whole pandemic," said Roy, who works jobs in the restaurant industry as well as remotely as an office manager.

"Once I made the concrete decision, there was almost relief and just peace."

She feels fortunate her family is healthy and that she can spend Christmas in Vancouver with her roommate and boyfriend. Roy is in contact with her family and friends in Ottawa, and will reach out to them during the holidays.

Submitted by Mollie Roy
Submitted by Mollie Roy

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said the safest way to celebrate "is with members of your immediate household" and urged Canadians to check with their local health authorities for additional guidance. Each province and territory has its own rules and limits on indoor gatherings, and many have allowances for people who live on their own to have contact with another household.

Dr. Ami Rokach, a clinical psychologist in Toronto, said this holiday season is particularly difficult because of many people's expectations that this time of year means spending time with family — and restrictions that are still in place after nearly a year disrupt that.

Rokach, who also teaches in the psychology department at York University, recommends people use this time to focus on their individual well-being and to shift their perception.

"Not being able to be with people that you really want to be with doesn't mean that you need to be lonely," he said. Technological advances and safe gatherings can "provide us kind of a bridge to a better time," he added.

WATCH | Psychiatrists discuss coping with being apart during the holidays:

Far from home, but still connected

Seb Rocca, a 21-year-old political science student at McMaster University in Hamilton, won't be returning to England for the holidays. He hasn't seen his family in nearly a year.

When he left for Canada, his mother urged him to come home for Christmas. But lockdown concerns and fears of not being able to return due to flight cancellations meant he'll be apart from family at Christmas for the first time. Even if he did decide to return, recently imposed travel restrictions between Canada and the U.K. due to a new variant of the coronavirus would have impacted any plans.

Submitted by Seb Rocca
Submitted by Seb Rocca

Rocca will be spending Christmas with his girlfriend and her parents just outside Hamilton. In advance of this visit, he said he self-isolated as a precautionary measure.

His family in England have gone above and beyond to make him feel at home. His mother sent a stocking, a tree ornament and cards from various members of his family.

"I love my family a lot. They try very hard to make sure that I'm OK," Rocca said.

He hopes he'll be able to see his family for graduation in the spring — and he knows exactly what he'll do then.

"Hug them like it was the last thing I can do on Earth," he said. "Whether it's in England or Canada, I just want to hug my family."

Submitted by Seb Rocca
Submitted by Seb Rocca

New traditions out of necessity

Christmas is a big deal for Annabel Thornton's family. Her family moved to Victoria from the United Kingdom when she was five, and the holidays have consistently been when the four of them could be together.

But Thornton, who's now working on her Ph.D in economics at the University of Toronto, recognized last spring that returning to Vancouver Island during the holidays might be difficult due to the pandemic.

The 24-year-old was able to visit her family in B.C. during the summer. Her boyfriend also returned from Halifax, where he attends university, in mid-November. The two will spend the holidays together at their Toronto apartment.

Submitted by Annabel Thornton
Submitted by Annabel Thornton

"I have a really good support network in Toronto, thankfully, so I have a lot of friends and I have a lot of people I can talk to," Thornton said about how she's handled living on her own for parts of the pandemic. "But it's definitely hard not seeing [family] at this time of year."

In lieu of the traditional Christmas Day nature walks and extended pyjama time, her mother has organized a "Zoom murder-mystery" so the extended family can still connect during the holiday.

"We're just trying to make the best of a sub par situation," Thornton said.

Submitted by Annabel Thornton
Submitted by Annabel Thornton

A time to be thankful

Eric Laing, 22, feels fortunate to have spent most of the pandemic near family. He spent the summer at home in Peterborough, Ont., with his mom, then moved to Vancouver in September to start work as an accounting associate.

Laing, who lives with his brother in Vancouver, is staying in B.C. for the holidays. Their family was supportive of the decision, with some members particularly appreciative that the brothers wouldn't be putting themselves at risk of exposure during the cross-country flight.

Submitted by Eric Laing
Submitted by Eric Laing

Laing relished being able to go for walks and bike rides with family and friends during the summer in Peterborough, and he and his brother spent the fall hiking and going to the beach. He said that, combined with Zoom and FaceTime calls with his mother, helped keep the feelings of isolation at bay.

"It would be really nice to see the rest of my family for the holidays as we have for so many years," Laing said. "But I'm really just feeling grateful to be able to spend it with my brother at least."