Christmas in the time of the COVID Wars
For Those Who Celebrate Christmas and Want to Believe Their Families Are OK
This Christmas Eve, a year that will be unforgettable for all the wrong reasons draws nearer to a close on its own terms with its trademark lack of mercy. The pandemic’s toll in lives should be enough: well over 300,000 American souls gone and counting, with over 1.7 million lost worldwide. But the collective psyche of the living is cracked with anxiety as well as grief, as a celebratory time of year transforms into a nightmare of vulnerability, need, fevered wishes and the punishment of unmet expectations.
For every family member who summons courage and insists, not without admirable determination, that there must be a way to gather in person safely (or at least, safely enough), there is another who collapses with fraught exhaustion at the request and the mere thought of trying.
The battle lines are clear. It’s those who need to know they’re worth the risk vs. those who need to know they’re worth the sacrifice.
Under even the best of circumstances, holiday planning isn’t always fun. Children of divorce, in particular, are already finely attuned to the inevitability of always disappointing someone. But COVID-19 frayed our nerves to the same degree that it fractured out networks. The need to come together now feels distinctly painful, an emergency. This can be true even within a person who is wracked with fear of the virus. Just as commonly, that fear — of being a sufferer or a spreader — can overwhelm the decision-making of the family member who can’t even consider stopping by.
Pandemic news that continues to break daily is no help. Even the brightest projections suggest mass vaccination is months away, making further waiting feel untenable, like handing victory to the virus as it claims months upon months, birthdays upon graduations upon milestones. Darker revelations include coverage of new, somehow even faster-spreading strains and the unsettling phenomenon of “Long COVID.” It’s hard to feel reassured when no, not everyone dies, but not everyone recovers as we usually define it, either.
Fidelity to heartfelt rule-bending rises as the banner of the “realistic.” CDC guidelines rise as the banners of the righteous.
It’s marvelously on-brand for COVID to disfigure our most human urges — to care for others and to feel cared for by them — into emotional land mines scattered across the field of once-banal negotiations over where to have dinner. It’s destroyed our sense of safety, even relative to people who love us and our most cherished destinations for refuge. Everyone’s distress is genuine. All anyone wants is love. But when it comes to how to handle Christmas during COVID, we can agree and yet not agree at all. We can understand each other’s raw, insistent requirements and feel helpless to fulfill them.
“But it’s Christmas.”
“Exactly. Can we not give each other the gift of a day without fear?”
It’s tempting to blame it all on virus-induced stresses. Nine months into living in constant vigilance, the corrosive effects are undeniable even as they feel disquietingly permanent. But the architecture of our family relationships, with its outsize reliance on 7–10 calendar days out of the entire year, didn’t just spring up during the pandemic. At base, the COVID Wars are a fight over what feel like alarmingly precious resources: attention and compassion. Maybe the virus only revealed how much rarer they are than they should be.
As young children, many of us were encouraged to hug some distant, often elder relative — say, Great Aunt Judith — whether or not we wanted to. She was a lovely old woman and nothing would make her happier, so our parents urged us on and we cringed our way through it. Today’s parenting guidelines have changed; teaching consent requires respecting boundaries. So little Dylan needn’t hug Great Aunt Judith if their relationship isn’t sufficiently intimate, and by all means, good for Dylan holding firm on it. But did anyone ever ask why Judith was so utterly deprived of affection in the first place?
Exhorting attention from children is easy. Small, vulnerable and reliant on the goodwill of caregiver figures to survive, they can be instinctively inclined to seek approval. But even adults who manage to pick on someone their own size find ways to infer that consensus isn’t necessary or relevant in the face of certain absolute-musts. If you loved me, you’d do this. And, equally powerful: If you loved me, you couldn’t take pleasure from making me.
Each family will find their solution this year. No matter what it is, it won’t be enough. No Zoom greeting can replace the time spent idling between dinner and dessert, spontaneously sharing photos and stories, learning about everything and talking about nothing. No in-person, half-distanced, fingers-crossed reunion will pass without underlying anxieties and the very present absence of those who simply could not bring themselves to come, with at least some parties taking it personally. (And that’s a best-case scenario in which no infections follow. When of course, they sometimes will.)
We’ll all tell the story of Christmas 2020 for a long time. Each of us will lend it our own moral. Hopefully, we’ll use the intervening years to reflect on what we learned about our loved ones and ourselves so we can move forward together changed and stronger. Concentrated emphasis on holidays as proof-of-love moments is an indicator as much as it’s a characteristic. Our urge to gather is elemental. We can acknowledge this reality while indulging or denying it based on conditions that are, for all their inconveniences, temporary.
It may be uncomfortable at a time when everyone’s capacity for resilience is already strained. But it’s worth interrogating why our needs for attention and compassion were so urgent that we were willing, in the dark winter of 2020, to risk tearing at sacred bonds to fill them — no reserves left to accommodate the equal and opposing needs staring us in the face. Citing one day out of 365 as our only chance to feel truly loved, and demanding its display. Or revealing we can feel abandoned, left to defend our own well-being even when surrounded by those whose compassion and protection we crave most.
Anne DeAcetis is a writer and performer based in New York who recommends hugging Great Aunt Judith yourself, and year-round. (Alright, she lives in Florida. We all know she’s thrilled to talk on the phone.) www.annedeacetis.com