A recent viral Twitter thread by Canadian Mohammad Hussain recounts his observations as a Muslim who’s celebrating his first “proper Christmas” with roommates as a result of pandemic lockdown. Hussain’s observations–which you can read here–highlight the laborious, expensive, and time-consuming nature of many Christmas “traditions,” as well as how attached many of us are to those traditions, and how upset we get when our often elaborate plans are thwarted.
This year, of course, is the year of thwarted everything. I’ve seen and heard others express disappointment–and felt my own–at not being able to gather safely with family or friends, missing community events that were cancelled, feeling less connected to religious rituals that have moved online. And yet in this year’s necessary simplification of holiday gatherings and rituals I’ve also seen, and felt, something I can only describe as a kind of…relief.
Steve and I didn’t really “do” Thanksgiving this year. I love Thanksgiving–I enjoy planning a menu, cooking for the people I love, running (or more recently, walking) in our town’s annual Drumstick Dash with our two grown boys, breaking out the pumpkin margaritas. This year, on top of the pandemic making it unsafe for travel and gathering–and turning the Drumstick Dash into a virtual, on-your-own-schedule 5K– the holiday fell on a chemo treatment week. The timing meant that Thanksgiving Day was one of my “quiet” days, a day when I’m disinclined to do anything other than sit on the couch and sip soup. Cooking and eating a big feast, much less walking a 5K in any form, were not on the agenda. And while it was disappointing not to see family or tuck into cran-apple pie, it was also relaxing. We didn’t have a schedule. Instead of setting an alarm and heading out into the cold first thing, we slept in. Read books. Watched some Netflix. I wrote a few notes of thanks, which was arguably more meaningful than making cranberry gelatin, as much as I enjoy the tradition, and as tasty as it is. We let go of any expectations about the day, and instead of making menus and grocery lists and calculating times and temperatures for multiple dishes to make sure everything was ready at the same time, we ate when we were hungry, rested when we were tired, and just accepted that things were different this year. It felt good.
When I saw Hussain’s observations on celebrating Christmas, I thought back to our un-Thanksgiving. Christmas is different this year, too. I’ve been struck by how many people I’ve seen post or heard say something along the lines of “This is the first year we’ve been able to have Christmas at our home,” or “It’s been kind of nice to have time to just sit and watch the fire,” or “I was actually glad not to have to….” While I’m sad not to have our boys and grand-dog here making merry, this strange holiday is giving me the chance to think about why we do all the things we do to celebrate each year, and which aspects of that celebration feel essential, and which, perhaps, are just habits born of cultural or ritual expectation that no longer serve us.
I think a lot of us get ourselves into trouble by trying to overdo and do it all: handmake ornaments for everyone we work with AND bake six kinds of cookies and package them in cute tins AND choose photos for and stuff and mail 100 holiday cards AND wrap presents like Martha Stewart AND take the kids to see Santa and the community tree lighting and the holiday parade AND attend all nine gatherings we’re invited to (we do genuinely like all the people, after all, except cranky Aunt Mildred, but she’d be hurt if we skipped her punch and cookies)—even sometimes juggling several events in a single day. Hussain compared celebrating Christmas to having a part-time job, and he wasn’t wrong. So many of us stack event on event and expectation on expectation to the point it takes a spreadsheet (or several) to manage our holiday.
Though our calendar has felt a bit too empty this year, I haven’t missed the franticness that often characterizes December. What does a holiday look like if we let go of the “we’ve always done it this way”s and the “it’s what everyone expects, and they’ll be disappointed if we don’t”s? (And who is this “everyone,” anyway?) If you choose not to worry about others’ expectations, what sifts to the surface as most pleasurable, most meaningful? In this year when so many things are different, what do you really miss? Did anything disappear from your to-do list that left you secretly relieved? And what, perhaps, did you bring back in to play because you had time this year, time that’s usually devoted to something else that maybe you don’t enjoy as much (or at all)? When the should’s and the have-to’s and the we’ve-always-done-it-like-that’s drop out, what stays, and can we find a way to hold on to those lessons going forward?
Frankly, the belief and insistence that “it’s our tradition, so we have to do x or y or z” is a significant reason why some people are risking their own lives and the lives of others to hold large family gatherings, or attend indoor religious services, even though at present those things are dangerous. Hussain jokes about people stabbing anyone “in the neck” who suggests an alternative to accepted traditions, but many people are in fact so beholden to what they usually do that they are willing to endanger their own and others’ lives to keep doing it, global pandemic be damned.
And I get that traditions often evolve from what’s important–seeing family, for example. But maybe 2020 can remind us there, too, what the crux of the matter really is. I still remember shuddering at hearing some of my born-Southern friends describe their holiday routine: Christmas Eve cocktails at Grandma A’s, then Christmas Eve church with Grandma and Grandpa B, then a lickety-split early Christmas morning at home so they had time to drive 2 hours to open packages and have Christmas dinner at their married older sister’s, then back in time to visit their dad’s family for caroling Christmas night. It sounded exhausting. And how do you manage any in-depth individual interactions with anyone when there’s always a crowd and the day’s such a flurry? It’s also true that traveling at the holidays can be exorbitantly expensive (higher priced airline tickets and gas prices) and extremely unpleasant.
As much as I love having family near at Christmas, I wonder: would it make as much or more sense to see family at some other, less harried time of year? Isn’t it the family togetherness that’s most important, not the time of year it happens? And if there’s something you really love doing with family at the holidays, do you have to confine that activity to the holidays? I love to bake and decorate cookies with my family, but we’ve been foiled this year, first by Covid, then by the post office. I hope we’re still going to manage a Zoom cookie-decorating session. But we could also make and decorate cookies in July or September or whenever it works for us to be in the same space again, and I bet we’d have just as much fun then.
This year my penchant for dressing up in festive clothes for the holiday took a fun pandemic-friendly turn: Steve and I got matching Christmas pajamas, and spent a good part of the day in them. We missed our boys but reveled in our kittens’ antics. We decided to privilege Zoom calls with loved ones and our own relaxation over kitchen prep and bumped our “Christmas dinner” to the day after Christmas. Whatever day we have it, it will taste just as good.
Maybe this Covid Christmas can teach us all something about celebrating with intention. Despite the year’s oddities, we’re having a marvelous holiday. We wish you many marvelous days in the year to come.