The Possibility of a Merry Covid Christmas

All the bummers coming up this holiday season, and a modest proposal for a silver lining

Photo: Frank and Helena/Getty Images

No matter one’s faith or lack thereof, the holidays come for us all, and this year they will come with a vengeance. It’s impossible to know exactly how the Covid-19 pandemic will play out over the next four months, but barring an unexpectedly rapid release of a widely adopted vaccine, the 2020 holiday season is likely to look very different from what we’re used to. Prepare for modified or canceled Thanksgiving travel plans, Hanukkah dinners on Zoom, outdoor Christmas services, and more Santa-themed PPE than any of us can bear.

Time passes in strange ways during a pandemic — the holiday season seems far away now, but it will be here before we know it. Stephen Higgins, president of the Maine Christmas Tree Association, is already shearing and tagging trees to cut down this winter, and he’s not worried that people will quit buying them this year. “From the few people I’ve talked to so far, there’s a sense that people are going to want to come out and get a Christmas tree,” he says. “They need a light at the end of the tunnel.”

But the act of shopping for a Christmas tree will surely be different. The National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) has circulated guidelines to its members for how best to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among customers and workers — some familiar to retailers who’ve already instituted sanitization and foot-traffic protocols, but some specific to the Tannenbaum trade. At cut-your-own locations, which often offer Santa visits as well, the NCTA suggests that Santas appear “either on closed circuit TV or live at a distance,” rather than having children sit on St. Nick’s lap. Similar Santa restrictions are likely to be in place at other venues like shopping malls and town greens; there’s no way to social distance while sitting on someone’s lap.

Good luck to parents who have to explain to their children how Santa can safely deliver presents to millions of households without becoming the ultimate superspreader.

For many people, Christmas begins when the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade ends, as Santa rolls his sleigh through Herald Square. But that tradition is in question this year. Macy’s has stated its intention to “reimagine” the parade for Covid-19 times, but details have not yet been determined. Santa certainly will not be appearing at Radio City this year, and neither will his friends the Rockettes; the Madison Square Garden Company has already canceled the Christmas Spectacular for 2020. And good luck to parents who have to explain to their children how Santa can safely deliver presents to millions of households without becoming the ultimate superspreader.

Santa’s helper, the U.S. Postal Service, has enough problems to deal with thanks to Covid-19 and the general election, and the holiday season will further strain its capacity. E-commerce has surged since people began sheltering in place, leading to a spike in shipping revenue for the USPS, but other mail (like marketing mail, down 37% thanks to the tight economy) has declined steeply. The service “does not expect its package revenue growth over the medium to long term to make up for its losses in mail service revenue caused by Covid-19,” the USPS wrote in its Q3 fiscal results. If advice around mail-in ballots holds true, we may all need to get our greeting cards and presents in the mail extra early.

But none of those commercial considerations are the reason for the season, and the devout among us will find a surreal experience of worship this year. Many synagogues will likely remain closed or at very limited capacity through Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Hanukkah; many churches will also mark Advent remotely. If recent history is any indicator, those churches that do open for Christmas services will likely be exposing their congregations to the elevated risk of catching the virus. Across religions, Zoom will be a more popular site of worship.

A secular Christmas Day tradition is also likely to vanish this year: going to the movies. Many theaters just won’t be open. And there wouldn’t be much to see, anyway. The major releases planned for November or December 2020 that have already been pushed back into 2021 include Marvel’s The Eternals, Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon, Godzilla vs. Kong, Will Smith’s King Richard, Chris Pratt’s The Tomorrow War, and the Fanning sisters’ The Nightingale. (There will still be plenty of Hallmark Christmas movies, though — the network announced 40 new releases for the 2020 season.)

While those living in states where the virus has been relatively under control over the summer have enjoyed some small degree of normalcy in socially distanced outdoor gatherings, in most states that won’t be feasible in December weather. The risks and hassles of travel will likely leave many families at home, often interfering with intergenerational gatherings of grandparents and grandchildren that is possible only through air travel — particularly since most grandparents are in a vulnerable age group for Covid-19. People living alone may have even more alone time in store.

On the bright side, maybe it’s easier to mute the blood pressure–raising political conversations that many families expect at Thanksgiving in an election year.

If all of this sounds a bit depressing… well, aren’t the holidays always a time of spiked depression? Actually, no, says Dr. Maru Torres-Gregory, a therapist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. “It’s not necessarily depression so much as sadness and loneliness and stress,” though for those already experiencing depression, it can be exacerbated. (And it’s important to note that the “holiday blues” should end with the season — if they don’t, professional help may be called for.)

Typical stressors include spending time with family, the prospect of having to spend money, and tension about taking time off work. “There’s a lot of people who dread having to spend time with family over the holidays,” says Torres-Gregory, and this year they may get their excuse to say no. But for others, that dread may be outweighed by the need for connection after so much social distance. “We’re so fatigued from being on our own. We all need human interaction, and a lot of us crave physical touch,” she says. “We all feel quarantine fatigue right now, but we need to make sure we don’t succumb to that so we don’t expose higher-risk family members or friends come the holiday season.”

Of course, the families who are able to smile (or grimace) through their Rudolph the Red-Nosed face masks to celebrate in these modified ways are lucky: At least a quarter of a million American families are likely to have the symbolic empty chair at the table this holiday season due to a Covid-19 death. And since the virus has a way of tearing through families, in some cases there will be more than one empty chair.

Then there are those families whose income has been severely curtailed by the pandemic’s repercussions; how do you furnish a feast and a spread of presents under the Christmas tree if your paycheck has vanished? It’s difficult to imagine the current administration supporting a relief package large enough to make up for the loss of wealth that vulnerable families have suffered because of the pandemic. And though shift work is nothing new, this year many essential workers and medical professionals will surely feel an extra pang at spending Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa dinners away from their loved ones.

For immigrants whose basic needs are already not being met, the holidays are always a challenging time — for day laborers in particular, there is a scarcity of work in the winter months, says Sindy Mata, community organizer for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. “The issues that result are poverty, food insecurity, and housing instability.” For a community that is already facing disproportionate exposure to Covid-19, the pandemic is exacerbating a number of preexisting problems that put day-to-day survival in question.

We cannot celebrate the holidays as we’re accustomed in 2020, and we cannot forget the suffering of the most vulnerable among us in this turbulent year.

But maybe this is a chance to reset. Maybe this is the year we stop holding ourselves to impossible standards — of perfect meals and perfect gifts, of zero fights and zero tears and only perfect togetherness. Maybe this is the year we stop expecting so much of ourselves and our loved ones — in fact, maybe such changes are long overdue.

“This year, needs will be different: We need to manage expectations,” says Torres-Gregory. “There’s a lot of nostalgia going on. A lot of us want to recreate moments from the past, but this is a whole new holiday season — in the past 100 years we have never experienced this before. We can’t compare, and we can’t hold ourselves to other people’s standards. We can’t overspend, overeat, overcommit. I think this is the year we need to simplify expectations.”

Maybe we will come roaring back with great excesses in the holiday season of 2021; it’s hard to imagine now, but who knows? Meanwhile, we can resolve to do something together. We can seize this unwanted opportunity to reimagine everything — to tell a new story about what the season of togetherness means for our country, our homes, and our relationships. In a time that requires distance, we can find new modes of closeness. In a year of austerity, we can rethink the purpose of wealth. And in a period of great uncertainty, we can decide what’s most meaningful about shared rituals.

Deputy editor for books at Medium. Formerly a staff writer and editor at Time.

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