Why Is It So Hard to Let Our Holiday Traditions Go?
Even the ones that, under normal, pre-Covid circumstances, we’d be complaining about?
There’s a moment — post-cognac but pre–second round of sugar cookies, maybe 30 minutes after the last attempt to enforce bedtime has been abandoned — when the sound level at my family’s Christmas dinner tips from “idling motorcycle” to “persistent foghorn.” Two dozen of us are gathered around a jerry-rigged dining table that curls into the living room, and we’re all talking at the very same time to whoever’s sitting furthest away. Three dogs bark insistently from various corners. A child strongly objects to sharing a toy. We forge ahead like this for another hour or so, until my grandfather stands up, brushes his pants and says, “Well, boys and girls, it’s time to go.” So we do. I go home and march straight into the bedroom, where I will lie, clothes on, lights off, until the ringing in my head starts to disappear.
It’s been like this my entire life: the barking, the bellowing, the free-flowing cognac that no one especially wants and inevitably leads to an ill-advised comment or five. And it has a tendency to drown out the lovelier stuff: my family embracing my partner; the early, tentative steps of my cousin’s daughter; my aunts’ generous laughter. Psychologists have a term for this sort of overshadowing. It’s called the peak-end rule, and it says our memories of any given experience are pretty much defined by how we feel at its most intense moment — its peak — and the very end.
That might be why, last year, I started to flirt with the idea of doing…none of it. Blowing off our big dinner, just the once, in favour of something very small with my partner, my stepmom and my dad. (My mother is Jewish, so divvying up Christmas isn’t an issue.) And since we were already breaking from tradition — just the once! — it was easy to picture having a roast chicken, which is 1,000 percent better than turkey, and putting soy sauce, scandalously, in the gravy and bringing port in juice cups to the couch after eating to sit and watch the falling snow.
It didn’t actually snow. (It might have rained?) But everything else about Christmas dinner 2019 was exactly as I’d imagined. It was calm and cozy — a nice, quiet night that left me genuinely looking forward to the elbow-to-elbow, slightly sweaty, increasingly noisy, aerosol-spraying dinner of Christmas 2020.
And then, you know, COVID.
(Related: 14 Ways to Celebrate the Holidays at Home)
As I write this, public health officials in Ontario, where I live, haven’t yet made their recommendations for holiday gatherings. But cases are way up across the country — driven in part by a post-Thanksgiving spike — and there’s no good reason to believe this surge will slow down soon. My grandfather is 94 years old. My cousins’ kids are back in school. Hospitalizations in cities like Toronto are climbing. We can’t risk infecting one another and straining an already overwhelmed health-care system.
So our big Christmas dinner is off, as it probably is for the majority of families not currently living in New Zealand. I might be able to drive to my grandfather’s house and talk to him in his backyard, but we can’t exchange gifts in the basement he built long before I was born. For the first time since she moved to Vancouver 30 years ago, my aunt won’t be flying back. To be sure, there are plenty of people for whom skipping the holidays this year is a relief — for whom family gatherings are a source of not just stress and frustration but also outright hostility and pain. But if you weren’t looking to avoid home, it can be heartbreaking to accept that you have to stay put.
That means many of us now find ourselves in the curious position of — don’t it always seem to go — coveting the very holiday traditions we’ve complained about for eons. The matinee movie that demands UN-calibre negotiation between all parties. The aggressively competitive cocktail-hour board game. The gruelling church service. The jokey but insistent pressure to wear the dinky paper crown tucked inside a Christmas cracker. (This might just be my family.) They’re the customs we subject to eye rolls and play up for laughs during our post–Boxing Day debrief with co-workers or friends. But there’s a reflexive possessiveness that kicks in too — the kind that might make you defensive if one of those co-workers or friends mocks the dinky crown with a little too much relish. Yeah, sure, it’s lame, but it’s mine.
Then COVID-19 comes along and takes that away too — one more consequence of this garbage year. It’s amazing how resistant I immediately became to having the exact same dinner I so badly wanted last December. Hardly any people? Eating chicken?! Get out of here with that nonsense. I can chalk up the change to a question of agency: Last Christmas, I made a choice. This time, that choice was forced upon me by the virus. While it’s not necessarily a surprise — as cases rose in the fall, it seemed likely the holidays would shrink to our households — it’s one more reason to feel powerless in 2020.
This pandemic has shaken up a lot of our assumptions about practices that once seemed stubbornly fixed. It turns out that much can be done, or undone, with a finger snap: If governments choose (and granted, that’s a big if), they can provide paid sick days, suspend evictions and keep the lights on in the middle of a crisis, just like that. Then think about how impossible it felt last year to tell your mother you didn’t want to join her at church. Or tell your sister you’re tired of making the hour-long commute to her house. I spent weeks settling on the right words to bow out of dinner, and they mostly involved emphasizing that this meal was a total one-off. Our traditions have been built up over generations. They appear immovable — until a pandemic shows how fragile they might actually be. It leaves me with the same shaky, vulnerable feeling I get whenever a thunderstorm takes down a giant tree, its tangled roots exposed to the air. I walk by and think, Really? Wind did that? All that? All at once?
When it comes to these pandemic holidays, I’m not going to pretend that drive-by pumpkin pie makes for an acceptable substitution. I won’t suggest playing an online video game with various uncles in lieu of watching football together. There will be no mention of Zoom. Instead, here’s my advice, gleaned from last year’s dinner, which I now view as a COVID-19 Christmas dry run: Do something different. Don’t replicate wholesale your usual traditions, because the holidays are going to feel kaleidoscopically strange regardless, and you might as well lean in. Make the food you like, with the condiments you like, served at the temperature you like. (This could finally mean: hot!) Don’t do a single thing you would prefer not to. Just as there are zero reasons to feel guilty about not using quarantine to whip off a novel, there is no need to work yourself into knots trying to establish new spins on old rituals. With a bit of luck, and a bunch of vaccines, we’ll all be back at the same table next year.
Yes, there are customs that won’t prove sturdy enough to endure the cancelled holidays. But I suspect they’ll be the ones no one’s particularly sorry to see go. It might be that a year’s interlude is enough to make everyone forget about that raging round of cocktail-hour Taboo. It might also be that the same interlude gives you a new appreciation for boozy Taboo (and that intermittent lockdown makes you considerably better at it). I can’t promise I’ll never again complain about the sound level at my family’s dinner. But I’ve definitely had my share of silence this year, so I’m ready to raise a glass to bellowing relatives and barking dogs. I might even put on the paper crown.