Across the country it will be, without a doubt, a strange holiday season.
In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, families are looking around them asking similar questions of how they will celebrate this year, what it will look like, will it be the same as before. There is no easy answer to these questions.
Do you emphasis that nothing will change them?
Recreate the traditions to the best of your abilities to bring a semblance of structure and stability in these uncertain times. Do you swing the other way, upend the traditions to better fit the circumstances?
There is no one right answer.
This year, for the first time in 28 years, our boys will not be home for the holidays. It is a choice that we made together, but that doesn’t make the choice easy either. I see it as a stop-gap. I know, that regardless of this year, our Christmas will still look similar to how it has always been. Just shifted slightly, to make space for the adjustments.
Our family, like all families, gathered traditions over the years. Routines both large and small that dictated our holiday season, and even the rest of the year. We always picked up our Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and decorated it the same day, a holdover from when Mike and I first got married and we were both so busy that buying a tree had slipped our minds until it was almost too late.
We went to the beach every year for a long weekend, right before school started. We made sure that Thanksgiving and Tony and David’s birthday were always separate celebrations, even on those odd years the two fell on the same day. We had dinner every night together as a family, a conscious decision we made when we had kids. No matter how late, the five of us would gather around the table to eat and talk about our days and poke fun at each other.
When Joe was going through treatment, we clung to those traditions even tighter. We made sure we could still go to the beach in the summer. We bought our tree the morning before Christmas. We would sit at our table with five chairs squeezed around it every night, no matter what, and talk about our day.
Traditions, when repeated, become a fixed moment in time.
They exist outside time, beyond a calendar year. They reach back into the past, stretch towards the future. I was so sure, for so long, that I would have years of Christmas eves picking up trees with the boys, of Thanksgivings watching them argue about which side dish was the best, of the long weekend at the beach watching Joe failing to body-surf and Tony tripping in the sand and David getting knocked over by even the smallest of waves. Of our five chairs, waiting for all of us to be home to fill them and to eat and to be happy.
For so long, Joe was dying. Five years, though we didn’t know it at the time. There is a comfort in dying, because it is an ongoing process. When Tony and David were told of Joe’s decision to forego further treatment, he told them bluntly “I’m dying now” to which David replied, “Aren’t we all?” It was supposed to be a joke, something they did to each other around that table all the time. It was something they always did around our table, joke at each other to disguise their opinion. The joke tugged at Joe’s lips but otherwise fell flat. Most jokes after that conversation did. Then, despite all the warning we had. Despite thinking we were preparing ourselves, he was dead. All our traditions, all our fixed points in time I could rely on, didn’t work anymore.
I kept making too much food for dinner. The fifth chair kept getting in the way. Our Christmas tree was too large, empty space that extra ornaments use to fill. We filled it with ribbons tied in bows instead. I couldn’t stomach turkey for Thanksgiving.
People always say that after a tragedy, given enough time, things go back to normal. What I now know they mean is that the after becomes your normal. You edit your life to fit what is in front of you. Even on the rare occasion we gathered together for Thanksgiving, we don’t have the traditional meal. We branch out, try something different. There was one memorable time where we settled on Cornish game hens, only for them to go bad in the fridge before we even had the chance to cook them. That year we just ate sides and drank too much wine. We still buy our tree Christmas eve, but smaller. Less ornaments mean less need real estate. The last trip to the beach was to spread Joe’s ashes there. It was later in the year than usual. There was a winter sun in the sky, sharp but not warm; the wind was biting, and we haven’t been back since.