A holiday season gutted by the pandemic: we’re trying to ‘celebrate and grieve at the same time’

December 24, 2020

By: Frannie Carr Toth and Cloe Axelson

We recently marked a new grim milestone in the COVID-19 pandemic: more then a quarter of a million Americans are dead, and the virus is raging. News of two vaccines offer hope, but even on an accelerated schedule, life as we knew it, according to the experts, is still a year away. These are dark times and we’re headed straight into a COVID winter.

Clearly, the 2020 holiday season will be unlike any other in modern history. The Centers for Disease Control is strongly recommending that people not travel for Christmas. Public health experts say that the safest, most prudent approach to the holidays this year is to stay home. To be “all in this thing together” means we must stay apart.

But this much separation from one another is hard. After nearly nine months, pandemic fatigue is real.

We wanted to know how people are coping, so we asked our readers and contributors to tell us how they’re planning to navigate the holiday season this year. There was nothing scientific about this venture, but the responses we received were heartfelt and affirming.

People are finding all sorts of ways to connect, celebrate and reflect. There will be lots of dinners over Zoom, but also many small gatherings outdoors, around fire pits and on porches beneath heated lamps. Your responses tell us that you are taking the dangers of the pandemic seriously. You are planning to make big sacrifices, at great personal cost, to keep yourselves and your communities safe.

A century ago, the world was struggling through another pandemic. The second wave of the 1918 flu was much more powerful than the first. It, too, spiked in the fall and winter. More than 675,000 Americans died during that public health crisis, more than a quarter of those deaths just in October. Maybe the things that are important to us now aren’t so different from what held people up then.

If you can’t hold your loved ones close this year, we hope you’ll find some hope and connection below. Take heart in the vivid descriptions of food (so many of you are relieved not to be eating turkey!), the gratitude for simple things and the inventive ways we are all finding our way through.

The poet Mary Oliver said, “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.” That seems just right for this holiday season.

— Cloe and Frannie

How we are feeling

I’m nervous heading into this holiday season. I remember what April in the Northeast was like as a frontline doctor treating COVID-19 patients. I don’t want to see that happen again. As of now, I will be off during Christmas and New Years’, but this will likely depend on how many cases we are getting and how much help is needed in the hospital. — Abraar Karan, M.D., Boston, Mass.

How this year will look different

How do you celebrate and grieve at the same time? That’s what I was thinking as I prepared for Thanksgiving, 2020. I love gathering around a table with friends and family. Unlike many I’ve talked to, who said Thanksgiving is canceled this year, I celebrated. This is one of my favorite holidays because it focuses on food and not commerce. Every year as my kitchen fills with the seductive scent of butter, garlic and a roasting bird, I love thinking about how many cooks are in their kitchens creating some variation of the same meal … The toughest part of the day will be the empty chairs at my table. Both my daughters live on the West Coast and won’t make it home. It’s been over nine months since I’ve seen them. We will Zoom later in the day, compare notes about our meal, toast our new president and vice president. There is no doubt I will need a box of tissues nearby. — Kathy Gunst, Maine

I am trying to think of the holidays as regular days, to be honest. It helps take the pressure off having to capital “C” celebrate(!) them. To be really-really honest, I am kind of looking forward to being low-key about the holiday season this year. I often feel that our society puts too much emphasis on the external aspects of the holidays (e.g., what we post on social media, how many party invitations we get, how many holiday cards decorate our fireplace mantel, gifts-gifts-gifts, etc.) and less on the internal (e.g., our family bond, our stories, our traditions). — Jenn DeLeon, Southborough, Mass.

Who needs turkey anyway?
We held a family vote and agreed that we don’t even like turkey, so we’re going to fry chicken instead. I’m so thankful that the six of us actually like each other. We’ll have fun frying chicken and baking cookies and starting to get ready for Christmas. I have some ideas about things we can drop off for our neighbors and mail some friends that will require advance planning. We love a family project, so we will make that happen. — KJ Dell’Antonia, Lyme, New Hampshire

Reasons to be grateful
I’m grateful for my loved ones’ health, for the imminent end of a hate-filled era, and for the knowledge that we are resourceful and resilient enough to forge a new sort of togetherness. — Julie Wittes Schlack, Cambridge, Mass.

I have been making masks throughout this time, and am thankful to all the people who have helped me distribute more than 1,400 of them. — Nancy Kelly, Lowell, Mass.