Understanding the Outrage Over Altering Holiday Celebrations Despite COVID-19 Risks

With the holidays fast approaching and COVID-19 cases and deaths reaching new highs, some U.S. officials are, to limit the spread of COVID-19, urging—or even requiring—that residents alter their typical celebrations.

For instance, New York governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order that limited residents to a maximum of 10 people over for Thanksgiving dinner, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended similar precautions.

In direct defiance of Cuomo, one New York State sheriff reported that he will not enforce Cuomo’s order. “I have no plans to utilize my office’s resources or Deputies to break up the great tradition of Thanksgiving dinner,” he said. “This national holiday has created longstanding family traditions that are at the heart of America … My office will respect the sanctity of your home and traditions.”

Thanksgiving is likely just the start. We are entering “the first full winter of the worst pandemic that we have seen in a century,” said William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. There’s thus good reason to expect the COVID-19 restrictions will stay in place, if not increase in severity, with holidays like Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s on the horizon.

Some Americans (such as the NY state sheriff) seem reluctant to follow the restrictions. For instance, 38 percent of Americans are planning to have Thanksgiving dinner with 10 or more people, defying the CDC’s recommendations. Behavioral science research suggests why some people may be reluctant to follow COVID-related regulations, including differences in personality dimensions, political ideology, and risk perception. Our research identifies another reason people may flout restrictions: because altering longstanding rituals is perceived as an affront to sacred values.

Our research identifies another reason people may flout restrictions: because altering longstanding rituals is perceived as an affront to sacred values.

In a series of studies, forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we found that altering rituals, like modifying a holiday celebration, provokes moral outrage because rituals represent group values and hence seem sacred to ingroup members. In fact, the more ritualistic a group’s activity—in other words, the more that the activity has symbolic meaning to the group and is done in a specified way—the more that altering it evokes outrage.

Altering a ritual is a moral violation because rituals do not stand for run-of-the-mill values: rituals stand for the group’s most cherished and sacred values. Think of rituals like the Jewish circumcision ceremony (Brit Milah), which represents a (literal) blood covenant with God, or Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ and the traits that he embodied (e.g., selflessness, compassion).

The common justification for altering the upcoming holiday rituals—to save lives—is also a sacred value. When one sacred entity (e.g., American values underlying freedom to celebrate holidays as we choose or practice our religion as we normally do) is pitted against another sacred entity (e.g., each individual’s right to life), we face a “tragic trade-off.” With either choice, policymakers will violate a sacred value—something that is supposed to be absolute and inviolable—and thus provoke moral outrage and defiance from others.

Altering a ritual is a moral violation because rituals do not stand for run-of-the-mill values: rituals stand for the group’s most cherished and sacred values.

As individuals, we also face a tragic trade-off: to adhere to these restrictions, which can feel frustrating and lonely and which can strip our agency, or to ignore the restrictions and conduct our holidays as if everything was normal, something that might be comforting but also expose us and loved ones to potential infection.

Demonstrating the anger that altering more ritualistic activities evokes, in one study we asked U.S. citizens to rate the degree to which 15 different U.S. holidays are ritualistic. Specifically, we asked participants to rate how much each holiday exemplified the components of ritual (such as how meaningful it is and whether or not it includes rigid and repetitive behaviors). When faced with a hypothetical alteration to the date the holiday is performed, participants reported more moral outrage (a measure of self-reported anger and perceived immorality) when holidays with more ritualistic features (e.g., Thanksgiving) were altered compared to holidays with less ritualistic features (e.g., Earth Day). This relationship held even when controlling for other potential predictors of outrage, like how frequently participants celebrated the holiday themselves. For the individual results for each holiday, see the figure below.


Alterations to holiday celebrations and outrage: the relationship between a standardized ritual index (the degree participants perceive the holiday to be ritualistic) and self-reported anger (Panel A) and perceived immorality (Panel B) when the holiday is altered. The grey region reflects 95 percent confidence interval bands.

But to what extent does having a seemingly good reason for altering the ritual—such as altering the ritual to benefit safety and health—reduce moral outrage at altering the ritual? This is parallel to the public debates we are seeing unfold before our eyes: government officials (like Cuomo) attempt to alter the Thanksgiving ritual in the name of public health, but face resistance (like the sheriff’s response).

We tested how different reasons for a ritual alteration influences outrage in another experiment featuring the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance ritual. Specifically, U.S. citizens reported whether they felt any outrage, and if so how much, when observing another U.S. citizen stay seated during the Pledge of Allegiance. Participants learned that the U.S. citizen had various reasons for staying seated in different experimental conditions, such as trying to help the United States (by making the country more inclusive to Americans with disabilities), trying to harm the United States (by undermining the country’s value system), not being able to stand due to a medical condition, and forgetting to stand.

In each condition, participants reported being more outraged at the person who stayed seated—and thus altered the ritual—compared to a person who stood, except in the condition in which the person was physically unable to stand because they had injured their leg. Moreover, participants reported greater outrage when the person stayed seated to harm the United States (ill-intent condition) than when the person stayed seated to help it (benevolent-intent condition).

Applied to our current health and holiday predicament, these results suggest even those who perceive that government leaders (such as Cuomo) have good intentions for altering holiday rituals may still experience some outrage. But those who perceive an ill-intention for altering the ritual (e.g., infringing freedom of choice) will experience even more outrage. 

Even those who perceive that government leaders have good intentions for altering holiday rituals may still experience some outrage. But those who perceive an ill-intention for altering the ritual will experience even more outrage. 

These results have implications for government officials and policymakers contemplating the best message to persuade Americans to keep their Thanksgiving ceremonies small. Highlighting the potential dangers to human life or public health may be ineffective for meaningfully reducing outrage because the alteration still compromises the group’s values.

Our research suggests that a better way to try to alter holiday rituals might be for government officials and policymakers to reframe the alterations as consistent with, not an affront to, American values. Perhaps the public health guidelines could be framed as consistent with American value of development. For example, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving from the last Thursday of November to the second to last Thursday of November to extend the Christmas shopping season and boost economic activity in the name of “progress and change.”

Moreover, if your family is pressuring you to attend a holiday celebration, but you do not want to take the health risk, consider reminding your family members that you still intend to celebrate and honor the meaning behind the ritual.

Overall, our research demonstrates how altering rituals is seen as challenging the values that the ritual represents. Compared to other types of group activities, rituals are particularly resistant to change, with many rituals persisting untouched for thousands of years. The consistency of ritual features over time, and the visceral reaction to altering them, help explain why a sizeable number of Americans plan to disregard COVID-19 guidelines to keep their holiday rituals unaltered. Updating rituals requires not just mandating change but carefully considering the underlying psychology of why rituals exist in the first place.