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Holiday cheer is here, but experts warn to remain cautious as coronavirus continues

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Festival of Lights 201815.JPG (copy)

Holiday Festival of Lights at James Island County Park on Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018. This year, the park is offering a drive-thru experience only. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

By Nov. 2, Charleston couple Sarah and John Black had already traded out their pumpkin for an evergreen. 

Sarah used Halloween, one of her favorite holidays, as a distraction from the pandemic, but once the October festivities were over, she started feeling down again. So John suggested breaking out the Christmas decorations a little early this year. Usually, the couple waits until after Thanksgiving. 

"The sights of the lights and sparkles and the Christmas smells, like evergreen and cookies, is definitely bringing us some joy," said Sarah. 

The couple decided to wait a little longer to light up their yard so as not to pester holiday-averse neighbors. But inside, the stockings are hung by the chimney with care in hopes that holiday spirits soon will be there. 

Sarah and John aren't the only ones turning to the holidays for comfort during a worrisome time. For many who are decorating early this year, roasting marshmallows and hanging ornaments is cathartic — a reminder of normalcy amidst the tumult. 

"COVID-19 has brought many challenges," said John. "We haven't seen our families, we haven't seen friends and many people have lost family members and jobs. So being able to celebrate Christmas a little longer this year is just a nice pick-me-up." 

Hanging the tinsel before putting the turkey away might be a means of overcoming the sadness surrounding the fact that the holidays won't be able to be celebrated the way they traditionally might, offered Dr. Dean Kilpatrick, distinguished university professor in the Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences at MUSC. 

"What it really is is a wistful longing for something that usually brings great comfort and joy and fun to our lives but cannot be safely enjoyed in the same way this year," said Kilpatrick. 

"Meet Me in St. Louis" encapsulates that yearning feeling perfectly, Kilpatrick suggests, with the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." It's a bittersweet symphony about a family celebrating the holidays amidst the dangers and fears of World War I and while facing unwanted change. 

"Someday soon, we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then, we'll have to muddle through, somehow," sings Judy Garland. 

That nostalgia for the comfort that comes with traditions and family togetherness — even if it's arguing with that one uncle (you know the one) — is painfully familiar this year, said Kilpatrick. 

In 2020, the faithful friends who are dear to us might not be able to gather near to us once more, at least safely, according to MUSC Department of Microbiology and Immunology professor Dr. Michael Schmidt. 

Even getting advance coronavirus tests before holiday trips or gatherings might not solve all COVID-19-spreading concerns, since the virus can appear and become contagious in less than a day later, perhaps even in the middle of Christmas dinner. 

Mask wearing is critical but hard while eating, hugging and mingling with loved ones, said Schmidt.

"They are, after all, our kissing cousins," he said. "So, it’s going to be a very scary eight weeks."

Schmidt suggests virtually lighting the Menorah, critiquing the tree and showcasing the pie this year. The drive-thru James Island Festival of Lights or a socially distanced Christmas crafting class might be OK, he offered. But parades, tree lightings, holiday markets and caroling pose a concern. 

"I, for one, will miss the samples and nibbles as I would walk through Marion Square or the Market," said Schmidt. "And to all the choir masters, I am afraid this year it is going to have be Y102.5 for the holiday music."

Luckily, a lot of festive activities, from binging Christmas movies to decorating holiday cookies, can be done in the comfort of one's home. 

Though Sarah and John will miss visiting family this year, they're trying to make up for it by adding a new tradition or two into the mix. 

"We are thinking about looking up and experiencing Christmas traditions from around the world," said Sarah. "Maybe we find something we want to add to our usual traditions, or maybe it'll add something to be excited about just for this year."

Reach Kalyn Oyer at 843-371-4469. Follow her on Twitter @sound_wavves.

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