Having Myself a Very COVID Christmas

Nothing has been the same in 2020. The holiday season is no exception. The 36 days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day that include Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa will be unlike any other in my lifetime.

We’ve reached December. The music, weather, and lengthy to-do list are the same, but many facets of the holidays are unrecognizable. Here are 10 ways I’m anticipating the pandemic will impact my Christmas celebration:

Exterior of house decorated with lights and wreaths for Christmas.
The 2020 version of our Christmas decorations feature new ribbons on our wreaths and new positioning of the floodlights. It’s the little things during the pandemic that bring joy.

No parties. Typically, our family’s calendar is filled with social gatherings for my wife and me and for our children. I have complained in the past of having an overstuffed December social calendar. Not this year. I have one event on the calendar at the moment, and it is a socially distanced, masked, hour-long party for my middle son. I’m sure a few more social occasions might trickle in, but they won’t resemble the festivities of years’ past.

No concerts. Our boys are musically inclined. Concerts, parades, and recitals are as much a part of our holiday season as parties. Sometimes the performances and parties occur in combination. I will miss my boys’ musical events and the way they set the mood for my Christmas celebration. Music fills me with Christmas spirit, but Spotify can’t replace the live performances that have become our tradition.

Shopping online exclusively. As has been documented in New South Essays in the past, I’m not a fan of shopping. I embraced online shopping a few years back, but I usually take the boys out for individual excursions so they can purchase gifts for family members and each other. We avoid the peak times, but these relatively short forays provide me with all the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping I need. This year, I’m planning for all of it online.

Limited family interaction. Our biggest struggle this year is getting together with family. We traditionally go to Florida after Christmas to spend time with my parents. Occasionally my Texas-based brothers are able to join in, and our boys get to see their cousins. Such was the plan this year, but those plans are shifting. We have been taking precautions for nine months allowing us to stay healthy and care for my immunocompromised mother-in-law. This close to the distribution of a vaccine, we simply can’t risk a trip to be around out-of-state family. The fear of missing out is most acute for me with this component of our holiday celebrations. To compensate, I am placing a high priority on a trip to Texas when the pandemic ends.

Different faith observances. I’ve written extensively over at View from the Pew about how our church experience has been different during the pandemic. Our pastor is determined to make sure we have a Christmas Eve service. We’ll bundle up and gather outdoors, keeping our distance and foregoing parts of the service that bring us into close contact. I will welcome the Christmas Eve service in any form, but there are many other annual observances I am missing, especially our church choir’s Christmas music. Again, Spotify is an imperfect substitute.

Appreciation of health. I am experiencing greater appreciation for my health this holiday season. This year in which I turned 50 has been full of health challenges. In February I had a bout of the flu and pneumonia before COVID-19 raged across the country. Then in March I tore my meniscus which I finally had repaired with arthroscopic surgery in November. In spite of those setbacks, we haven’t had to deal with a case of COVID in my household. I am grateful and hopeful that continues into 2021.

Gratitude for each other. We will be around each other more this Christmas than any other, and while that contributes to the petty arguments and frustrations boiling over, it will also cement our family’s bond. Sitting around our Thanksgiving table and calling my parents later that day filled me with gratitude for the people in my life in a profound way.

Decorating early. I saw a lot of social media posts this year of people “needing a little Christmas, right this very minute” back on Nov. 1. We weren’t quite there, but this year I’ve forsaken my annual complaint of people skipping Thanksgiving and going right to Christmas. We all do what we have to do to make it through. Our own Christmas decorations didn’t go up early. In fact, because of some home projects, our tree sat lit but undecorated longer than usual, but early decorating is the rule rather than the exception in 2020.

Clinging to tradition. We’re not giving up traditions this year, we’re reinventing and re-interpreting them. We’re boiling them down to their essential quality and meaning and finding a way to do them safely. The best example so far is our Saturday after Thanksgiving trip to Ihop and Christmas tree shopping. This year, we made a huge breakfast at home, had a leisurely morning, cleaned up the kitchen together, and finally made it to the tree lot around noon. There was less time to decorate, but the boys agreed this may be a permanent change to our holiday traditions.

Seeking joy. More than gifts, food or nostalgia, I am seeking joy this Christmas. I cannot remember entering a holiday season in my lifetime with such a desperate need to be uplifted, encouraged and inspired. Whether it’s in the laughter of my family around our table, hearing the familiar words of Luke 2 on Christmas Eve or the strains of Harry Connick’s “Harry for the Holidays” album, I will savor the feeling of joy that has been so elusive these past nine months.

That’s my list. I’m curious how your holiday season will be different this year. Whatever may come, I hope your holidays are safe, meaningful, memorable and above all, joyful.

Ruining Christmas

Children are prone to hyperbole. I understand this. Overstated pronouncements barely even move the needle on my parental reaction seismograph.

But last weekend I encountered a new psychological phenomenon that both amused and confounded me. Let me paint the picture for you:

Buying our Christmas tree
Despite Barron’s best Scrooge imitation, the Wallaces proceed to checkout at Lowe’s with our Christmas tree.

Every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, our family goes to breakfast and then goes to purchase our Christmas tree. We spend the entire day decorating the house — inside and out — so that by the time our heads hit the pillow, we are ready for Christmas.

By a quirk of the calendar, this happened to be one of those years in which Thanksgiving fell on the earliest possible date. Carla and I decided that we would be OK to postpone our annual tradition by a week. Our tree is usually a pile of needles anyway by the time New Year’s Day rolls around, so we thought this might be better to preserve the tree throughout Yuletide.

So we spent the Saturday after Thanksgiving catching up on laundry, tending to the lawn, buying groceries and treating ourselves to an outing to the $2 cinema to catch the runaway blockbuster of last summer “Diary of Wimpy Kid 3: Dog Days.” Nothing gets you in the Christmas spirit like a summer movie.

The kids seemed to cope with this change of tradition OK until the following Saturday. We went to our closest IHOP, ingested copious amounts of pancakes of several international varieties and set out to buy our tree. This is where things began to go off the rails. The IHOP is literally in the parking lot of Home Depot. Naturally, we thought we’d just pull around, pick out our tree and be on our way.

The problem was that for the last four or five years, we have purchased our tree from Lowe’s, just a few miles down the road. When we announced we were going to Home Depot, we encountered resistance.

“Why are we going to Home Depot?”

“Because it’s right here. It’s more convenient.”

“But this isn’t where we buy our Christmas tree.”

“It’s the same thing except the building is orange instead of blue.”

They were not convinced. We piled out of the minivan and entered the huge tent outside the lawn and garden section filled with Christmas trees. As the aroma of Christmas permeated the air, our children began fussing. I looked over at our oldest who was doing his best “I just lost my best friend” impression, and I listened to the two younger ones debate Home Depot trees vs. Lowe’s trees. That’s when it came.

“You are ruining Christmas for everyone,” Barron said.

I laughed out loud.

“Seriously? We are ruining Christmas?”

“Yes! First, we didn’t decorate for Christmas when we were supposed to. Then we went to the wrong place to buy our Christmas tree. This isn’t the way we do Christmas.”

Still chuckling, I loaded us up in the van and hauled the family down the highway to Lowe’s.

As the day went on and more and more of their expectations went unmet, their emotional dam burst that night before bedtime. Barron was particularly affected by it.

Because we weren't doing Christmas "right," Barron took over and tried by force of will to get us back on track.
Because we weren’t doing Christmas “right,” Barron took over and tried by force of will to get us back on track.

After much reflection, here is my analysis of the problem: A good many of us have wonderful childhood memories of a few magical Christmas celebrations. Those four or five years, or fewer, make such a profound impact on us, that we are conditioned to expect every Christmas to be just as magical as those. As soon as the first stanza of “Jingle Bells” hits our ears, we revert into children, happily baking foods that we know will kill us, purchasing gifts we know we can’t afford, filling our schedules with parties and activities that we know we can’t endure, all in the vain attempt of recapturing our fleeting childhood Christmas experiences.

There is a time between adolescence and parenthood in which Christmas becomes disconnected from its roots. Blame it on Santa if you want to, but the absence of children makes Christmas different. So when we have children of our own, we relive our childhood through them, rekindling our excitement through their anticipation and impatience.

I’m not ready to pronounce this a bad thing. It just is. Dealing with unmet expectations at Christmas is a rite of passage. We all have to go through it. Barron may be confronting that this year, but I predict he will have many more years before he feels the same expectancy as he felt in his early childhood.

Our house still isn’t decorated for Christmas, and lest we risk ruining Christmas for everyone forever, we have to get caught up tomorrow. I am willing to play along and help our children have our “traditional” Christmas.

My real objective, though, is to help them break through the trappings of Christmas and uncover the largely ignored truth of this holiday. Our Savior was born because God loves us. The earlier in our lives we learn to focus on this dimension of the holiday, the sooner we experience true joy at Christmas.

So whether you have a Griswold Christmas, a Ralphie Christmas, a Peanuts’ Christmas or even a Grinch-Stole-Christmas Christmas, I sincerely wish you a Christ Christmas. That’s the best way I know to avoid ruining Christmas.

What are your Christmas traditions? What activities do you engage in every year to recapture the magic? What is it that if you skipped it would ruin your Christmas? Leave a comment and share your story.