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.

Y’all be sure and drive slow

Not all trends in the New South are welcomed by traditional Southerners with an appreciation for history. In fact, their voices tend to be among the loudest decrying the increasing recreationalization of Memorial Day. It’s hard to disagree with their case.

Gen. John Logan
Memorial Day had a lot of meaning to both sides of the Civil War when it was first officially declared on May 5, 1868, by Gen. John Logan.

I doubt very seriously that when Gen. John Logan proclaimed May 5, 1868, the first official Memorial Day he had pool parties, hot dogs on the grill and big-budget movie releases in mind. What’s now referred to as the “unofficial start of summer” does not have much to do with the sacrifices of America’s soldiers and their families.

My family’s route to church takes us through Duluth where twice a year the city’s streets are lined with flags. The week prior to and following Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, flags attached to white crosses bearing the names of service men and women serve as a reminder to passersby that there is something real and meaningful happening. It semi-annually prompts interesting discussions with my children.

Because of the flags, I get the opportunity to tell my boys about the service of their grandfathers, my dad in the Air Force and my father-in-law in the Navy, and how my grandfather fought in two wars – World War II and Korea. I can connect the dots for them when we visit my parents’ house in Florida and they see the framed name badge and medals from my grandfather’s service.

Actually, the flags also serve as contemporary reminders that the United States continues to fight wars on two fronts. Americans are still giving their lives in defense of their country, and the day still has meaning for many families. As the World War II generation passes off the scene, we may be in real danger of losing Memorial Day. Oh, we’re not in danger of losing the three-day-weekend that marks the start of summer.  Congress tried to debate that back in 1999, but no representative with an eye toward re-election would take away a working person’s three-day weekend.

Flags at Duluth city hall
Flags lining the streets and adorning the lawn of city hall in Duluth, Ga., serve as important reminders.

No, the real threat is losing the connection with, pardon the cliché, the real meaning of Memorial Day. This isn’t a phenomenon unique to Memorial Day. I would argue it’s already happened to Thanksgiving (Black Friday Eve), Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President’s Day, Labor Day and maybe even Christmas.

In connecting the dots from grandfathers to military service to Duluth’s flags for my boys, the picture isn’t complete until the line reaches the conclusion of freedom. Ultimately, that’s what Memorial Day comes back to. Men and women freely offered up their lives, whether wittingly or unwittingly, in defense of their country. We remember them as we enjoy our freedoms.

So maybe there is a way to remember our war dead even as we stand in line at the Cineplex or clean off our grills for the first time since Labor Day. Perhaps as we attend pool parties with friends we can reclaim a sense of gratitude and even grief for the lives lost in the horrors of war.

It will require effort, and we have to be intentional about it, but Memorial Day in the New South doesn’t have to be just another three-day weekend.

To quote singer songwriter James McMurtry:

“It’s Memorial Day in America
Everybody’s on the road
Let’s remember our fallen heroes
Y’all be sure and drive slow.”