2020 has given us recurring invitations to practice creativity and hopeful optimism. Never before have graduations, weddings, summer vacations, professional sports games, and our work routines looked as they have this year! We have become experts at holding plans and expectations loosely as we make sacrifices for the common good.
Yet, standing on the brink of the holiday season, I feel myself reluctant to loosen my grip on my hopes for Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas, and the start of the new year. What about our beloved traditions? Do we have to lose those this year, too? When so much of this year has been different (and difficult!), can’t the holidays feel normal? Is that too much to hope for??
These thoughts seem to hang in the air — unspoken — in recent conversations with friends. As much as we long for normalcy — like big family gatherings, vacations to see loved ones, annual Nutcracker ballet shows, holiday shopping adventures, office Christmas parties, neighborhood cookie exchanges, and packed Christmas Masses — we know that things will be different this year. It is inevitable and, truthfully, it is a small sacrifice compared to the unfathomable losses that many have experienced this year.
As we close out 2020 and step into 2021, we are invited again to be flexible and resilient: acknowledging our disappointment that things are different this holiday season, while still cherishing the quiet graces that remain. Keep these approaches in mind during what will be a strange holiday season.
Keep it simple
The pandemic has been a time of incredible stress. As many of us lose jobs or forgo bonuses, we are finding newfound economic stress that has put more pressure on our mental health.
This year, we have the opportunity to opt out of the traditional stress that comes with the frenzy of gift-giving and the chaos of ambitious travel plans. For the sake of our mental health and our wallets, this year’s holiday season is an invitation to embrace simplicity and lean into a calmer, more peaceful holiday season.
For me, keeping it simple will involve unplugging as much as I can, writing more hand-written letters, spending cozy afternoons with a book or journal, trying new recipes virtually with friends and comparing our finished products, taking stock of my own emotional and spiritual health, and bundling up for winter hikes.
If there is ever a time to turn away from the consumerism of the holidays, this is the year to do it! Keep the gifts simple and heartfelt, embrace the time off-line, and rest in the slower pace of this season.
Make it special
Now, you may balk at the invitation to keep it simple because the pandemic ushered in a simplicity that many of us had not experienced in our adult lives: fewer places to go, fewer people to see, and less things to do. It is true — you may be tired of “keeping things simple”! Still, approaching the season as a time of simplicity will enable us to focus on the blessings we do enjoy — our health, our homes, our faith, our loved ones, even if they are afar.
Furthermore, I encourage you to think intentionally about how to make this season feel special and different than our newly adapted Covid-era routines. Is there a new activity you could do with folks in your household, like snowshoeing or building a winter bonfire? Could you collaborate on a family scrapbook? What about a day trip to a new place that you’ve always said you would visit, but haven’t yet? You could write letters to senior citizens isolated from their families, or try a new prayer tradition. Another idea is to pull out the Advent wreath and create a dinner-time candle-lighting ritual.
Rarely do we have the opportunity to slow down and make intentional choices about how we use our time, especially during the holiday season that pulls us in countless directions. Let us choose to use the time we have this season in special ways so as to restore our spirits and celebrate the true beauty of the holidays.
In where you shop, where you spend your time, whom you support, and where you find meaning this season, look local! The pandemic has highlighted the importance of community (and hit our local communities hard), so how can you invest in that community this winter?
Support the local bookstore and mom-and-pop breakfast spot. Explore trails in your town or city. Plan day trips to sites closer to home. Enjoy warm mugs of hot cocoa with your neighbors (socially-distant!). Find a local tree farm and go all-out decorating your house or apartment for Christmas. Contact your local parish and ask about supporting individuals or families who are in need this season. When more of us will be staying closer to home over the holidays, we have the opportunity to embrace our neighbors like never before.
The holidays may look very different this year, but during this pandemic we have learned how to safely and meaningfully celebrate weddings, welcome new babies, commemorate the deaths of loved ones, connect with friends, and support those in our communities who are suffering. The upcoming holiday season will be no exception. With hopeful hearts focused on the true meaning of what we celebrate, the light of this season will shine brightly in the darkness.