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A Holiday Season Gutted By The Pandemic: We're Trying To 'Celebrate And Grieve At The Same Time'04:31
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(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

We recently marked a new grim milestone in the COVID-19 pandemic: at least a quarter of a million Americans are dead, and the virus is raging. News of two vaccines offer hope, but even on an accelerated schedule, life as we knew it, according to the experts, is still a year away. These are dark times and we’re headed straight into a COVID winter.

Clearly, the 2020 holiday season will be unlike any other in modern history. The Centers for Disease Control is strongly recommending that people not travel for Thanksgiving. Public health experts say that the safest, most prudent approach to the holidays this year is to stay home. To be “all in this thing together” means we must stay apart.

But this much separation from one another is hard. After nearly nine months, pandemic fatigue is real.

We wanted to know how people are coping, so we asked our readers and contributors to tell us how they’re planning to navigate the holiday season this year. There was nothing scientific about this venture, but the responses we received were heartfelt and affirming.

People are finding all sorts of ways to connect, celebrate and reflect. There will be lots of dinners over Zoom, but also many small gatherings outdoors, around fire pits and on porches beneath heated lamps. Your responses tell us that you are taking the dangers of the pandemic seriously. That you are planning to make big sacrifices, at great personal cost, to keep yourselves and your communities safe.

To be “all in this thing together” means we must stay apart.

A century ago, the world was struggling through another pandemic. The second wave of the 1918 flu was much more powerful than the first. It, too, spiked in the fall and winter. More than 675,000 Americans died during that public health crisis, more than a quarter of those deaths just in October. Maybe the things that are important to us now aren’t so different from what held people up then?

If you can’t hold your loved ones close this year, we hope you’ll find some hope and connection below. Take heart in the vivid descriptions of food (so many of you are relieved not to be eating turkey!), the gratitude for simple things and the inventive ways we are all finding our way through.

The poet Mary Oliver said, “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.” That seems just right for this holiday season.

-- Cloe and Frannie


How we are feeling

I’m feeling a sense of loss, but with two promising vaccines on the way, I am also feeling cautiously optimistic. — Tafadzwa Muguwe, M.D. Boston, Mass.

I feel like it's odd to be "celebrating" after one of the toughest years for our country, but mentally and emotionally, I am really ready for that joy the holidays normally bring: closeness, family, tradition and new memories. I have practiced the phrase "This year, we are staying home, and so should you" a lot. — Judith Young, Auburn, Mass.

Judith Young says she and her family know their way around the virtual gathering scene. Here she is in August 2020 at her backyard vow renewal with her husband and kids. Guests attended via Zoom. (Courtesy)
Judith Young says she and her family know their way around the virtual gathering scene. Here she is in August 2020 at her backyard vow renewal with her husband and kids. Guests attended via Zoom. (Courtesy)

My father died in early March — of cancer, not COVID — and this will be our family's first holiday season without him. We're all staying in our respective households this year, which feels like the safest, most responsible thing to do. But I hate that my newly widowed mother will be alone, instead of surrounded by family during this fraught, tender time. I hate that so many other people will be experiencing the same thing: Their first holiday season after the death of a loved one, without friends and family around to ease the pain. — Jane Roper, Melrose, Mass.  

Abraar Karan pictured on a past Thanksgiving with his mom and sister. (Courtesy)
Abraar Karan pictured on a past Thanksgiving with his mom and sister. (Courtesy)

I'm nervous heading into this holiday season. I remember what April in the Northeast was like as a frontline doctor treating COVID-19 patients. I don't want to see that happen again. As of now, I will be off during Christmas and New Years', but this will likely depend on how many cases we are getting and how much help is needed in the hospital. — Abraar Karan, M.D., Boston, Mass.

When Gov. Charlie Baker announced that we should celebrate the holidays only with the people we live with, I wholeheartedly agreed; however, I live alone, so I simultaneously felt the one-two punch of the pandemic’s social isolation, especially since my birthday also falls amidst the holidays. This year, I plan to celebrate by dropping off and receiving food from local family and friends, instead of exchanging hugs and sitting together for a meal. The gift of sharing and savoring the love and gratitude we have for each other is stronger than our physical distance. — Tracy Strauss, Cambridge, Mass.

Tracy Strauss usually celebrates Thanksgiving with her brother, aunt, uncle, and cousins, pictured here. They have an annual tradition of taking one formal family portrait and another, less serious group shot for fun. (Courtesy)
Tracy Strauss usually celebrates Thanksgiving with her brother, aunt, uncle, and cousins, pictured here. They have an annual tradition of taking one formal family portrait and another, less serious group shot for fun. (Courtesy)

I hope to celebrate the holidays by only doing the typical holiday things with the people I live with. I am afraid that family pressure — and my parents’ and extended family's desire to make it all "normal" — will cause my family to guilt me into holiday activities that will lead to people dropping their guard. I just really want my family to all acknowledge that we cannot do normal holiday stuff this year. — Andrew, Carlisle, Mass.

Dr. Joshua Budhu in the lobby of Mass. General Hospital on Nov. 19, 2020. (Courtesy)
Dr. Joshua Budhu in the lobby of Mass. General Hospital on Nov. 19, 2020. (Courtesy)

I feel anxious and resigned. Many Americans are planning to celebrate this Thanksgiving as if the pandemic doesn't exist. I feel like Cassandra, the Greek prophet cursed to utter true prophecies but have no one believe her. — Joshua Budhu, M.D., Boston, Mass.  

I asked a friend who practices immigration law what it means to have a president-elect Joe Biden, and he said, “My work will no longer be completely impossible, just nearly impossible.” So much is true in that comment. For me, the holidays will be a time for reflection, and that means thinking about the disproportionate ways in which we, as a nation, allowed COVID-19 to eradicate the lives of tens of thousands of disabled people in this country. How is this country of unceasing, self-proclaimed greatness so callous, helpless, and indifferent? And yet I also see the glimpse of what “just nearly impossible” could lead to, and it seems to me the most realistic seed of hope I can embrace. — Alex Green, Waltham, Mass.

How this year will look different

How do you celebrate and grieve at the same time? That’s what I’m thinking as I prepare for Thanksgiving, 2020. I love gathering around a table with friends and family. Unlike many I’ve talked to, who say Thanksgiving is canceled this year, I will celebrate. This is one of my favorite holidays because it focuses on food and not commerce. Every year as my kitchen fills with the seductive scent of butter, garlic and a roasting bird, I love thinking about how many cooks are in their kitchens creating some variation of the same meal ... The toughest part of the day will be the empty chairs at my table. Both my daughters live on the West Coast and won’t make it home. It’s been over nine months since I’ve seen them. We will Zoom later in the day, compare notes about our meal, toast our new president and vice president. There is no doubt I will need a box of tissues nearby. — Kathy Gunst, Maine

For 35 years we have had a big multi-family/friend Thanksgiving dinner. Not this year. Another family and a few strays are coming over after dinner for dessert  — outside around a fire and with masks on. It’s important for us to hang on to some of our traditions and to include those who may be alone this year, so for us it’s worth the small risk. — Mollie Miller

I won’t feel sorry for myself. There are so many permanently empty chairs at Thanksgiving tables this year. Those are the people to who my sorrow goes.

Carolyn Griffin

Thanksgiving this year will be very different. I have five children and nine grandchildren. One of my daughters usually hosts dinner. This year I will be home at my condo alone. I've decided to buy a roasting chicken and do all the sides (in smaller portions) and a dessert or two. I’ll go for a walk (I live in historic Plymouth, in walking distance of The Rock and Mayflower). I may also pick a favorite movie to watch, possibly Zoom with family, put up Christmas decorations, start wrapping gifts, start writing Christmas cards. Most importantly: I won’t feel sorry for myself. There are so many permanently empty chairs at Thanksgiving tables this year. Those are the people to who my sorrow goes. — Carolyn Griffin, Plymouth, Mass.

 I used to spend long-weekends inching along clogged highways between Boston and my in-laws’ in New York, desperately wishing I could instead be having anything but turkey at home with my husband and kids. This year my dream is coming true. The dinner will be take-out, the family will be on Zoom, and the clamor, laughter, boredom, and gluttony of past get-togethers will be replaced by something muted and small. But we’ll feel a new sort of connection in our parallel solitudes. We will miss each other because we love even that history together, and that reminder will be a gift. — Julie Wittes Schlack, Cambridge, Mass.

Julie Wittes Schlack's daughter and son-in-law and their blended families at Thanksgiving two years ago. Julie writes, "It’s unfortunately a bit blurry, but the blur actually captures the action of that very animated meal." (Courtesy)
Julie Wittes Schlack's daughter and son-in-law and their blended families at Thanksgiving two years ago. Julie writes, "It’s unfortunately a bit blurry, but the blur actually captures the action of that very animated meal." (Courtesy)

I preordered special donuts for the day before Thanksgiving, including one with cranberry glaze, stuffing, mashed potatoes and fried chicken on top. Everything is weird this year, so why not? Instead of dinner, we're having my parents over in the morning for bagels, which we’ll eat outside by the fire pit. My husband often works in the emergency room on holidays, and he’s so excited to be home — particularly this year — that he ordered a 16-pound turkey to cook for our family of five. — Sara Shukla, Rhode Island

We will be especially missing my youngest son, 26, a U.S. Marine stationed at Iwakuni, Japan for the last 3.5 years. He married a lovely girl from Osaka in March and we couldn't go. We'll set up a time to video chat via WhatsApp. — Sandy Kane

My family was going to meet in person but after a long talk about the risks we’ve decided to do a zoom Thanksgiving instead. Even as we debated the risk of outdoor meeting or testing and meeting, it didn’t seem safe. — Claire, New York, NY

We won’t gather this year so we can gather next year.

Lois Johnson

We won't be gathering with family this year, or with anyone indoors. We're spending Thanksgiving in the backyard of a friend who has heating lamps — just four of us, keeping our distance while being together (and celebrating on a different day if it rains or freezes on the actual day of Thanksgiving). Hannukah and Christmas will be just myself and my partner. But we're making the most of it: making festive outdoor plans with friends, and Zoom plans with far-away family. Planning elaborate baking projects, and starting gift shopping early on the websites of local businesses. Since I'm part Italian, I've long wanted to try the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, and now we'll have the time to do it. — Jaclyn Friedman

We will have a small Thanksgiving with family members we have been socially distancing with since March. We built a large deck during quarantine and have rented a patio heater to have dinner with our small group, outside. — Lana Eldridge, Halifax, Mass.

Lana Eldridge's family built this deck during quarantine, which they plan to use as an outdoor dining room. (Courtesy)
Lana Eldridge's family built this deck during quarantine, which they plan to use as an outdoor dining room. (Courtesy)

Some neighbors have organized a socially distanced turkey trot on our block and then my kids and I will spend the day cooking, before seeing my parents outside, briefly, around a bonfire. — Sarah Sherman-Stokes, Roslindale, Mass.

I am trying to think of the holidays as regular days, to be honest. It helps take the pressure off having to capital “C” celebrate(!) them. To be really-really honest, I am kind of looking forward to being low-key about the holiday season this year. I often feel that our society puts too much emphasis on the external aspects of the holidays (e.g., what we post on social media, how many party invitations we get, how many holiday cards decorate our fireplace mantel, gifts-gifts-gifts, etc.) and less on the internal (e.g., our family bond, our stories, our traditions). — Jenn DeLeon, Southborough, Mass.

We have been soliciting donations from friends and family for supplies to make care and art kits for Boston's Rosie's Place shelter. On Thanksgiving day, my family will assemble the kits together as our Thanksgiving activity. We'll drop the kits at Rosie's Place in the days following the holiday. — Nina Max Daly, Brookline, Mass.

Nina Max Daly sent us this photo of the donations she's collected so far, alongside her son, Sid, and their cat. She writes, "We initially set out to create 40 care kits and 20 art kits which we plan to assemble on Thanksgiving day. However, we've had so much interest from friends, family and even some people we don’t know, that we’ve expanded to include food donations which will go to Pine Street Inn. The inspiration for this project came from my daughter, Rose, who over the summer -- and unprompted by us -- decided to spend her babysitting earnings to buy supplies and create care kits for guests of Pine Street Inn." (Courtesy)
Nina Max Daly sent us this photo of the donations she's collected so far, alongside her son, Sid, and their cat. She writes, "We initially set out to create 40 care kits and 20 art kits which we plan to assemble on Thanksgiving day. However, we've had so much interest from friends, family and even some people we don’t know, that we’ve expanded to include food donations which will go to Pine Street Inn. The inspiration for this project came from my daughter, Rose, who over the summer -- and unprompted by us -- decided to spend her babysitting earnings to buy supplies and create care kits for guests of Pine Street Inn." (Courtesy)

This Thanksgiving instead of having our usual 40 family members over, we're doing nuclear family only. But, in deference to the trying times, I'm setting up a treasure hunt for my kids similar to the hunt and click adventures you can play on your phone. There are riddles to solve, rhymes to figure out and puzzles to crack. — Andrew Griffin, Lowell, Mass.

For Thanksgiving, we are going to work on potty training our 3-year-old. The 7-year-old will probably play some Minecraft with his friends online. We may venture out for a trail walk or a playground if it’s nice. It’ll be pretty different, but probably much more chill (with more pee on the ground). I suspect Christmas will be the same. But I’m okay. There will be more years ahead if we are careful (hopefully, right?) and my kids are little enough that it will just be that “one weird year.” — Jaimee Bellissimo, Acton, Mass.

Who needs turkey anyway?

We held a family vote and agreed that we don't even like turkey, so we're going to fry chicken instead. I’m so thankful that the six of us actually like each other. We'll have fun frying chicken and baking cookies and starting to get ready for Christmas. I have some ideas about things we can drop off for our neighbors and mail some friends that will require advance planning. We love a family project, so we will make that happen. -- KJ Dell’Antonia, Lyme, New Hampshire

So many people wrote to say they felt liberated by not having to roast a turkey. (Getty Images)
So many people wrote to say they felt liberated by not having to roast a turkey. (Getty Images)

This year the bird will be smaller, fewer potatoes will be mashed, and there will be only one vegetable, and a half portion of cranberry sauce, flecked with fresh ginger, toasted pecans, orange zest and maple syrup. And for dessert: cranberry cheesecake. Because some traditions should not disappear. — Kathy Gunst, Maine

We held a family vote and agreed that we don't even like turkey, so we're going to fry chicken instead.

KJ Dell'Antonia

It will be my wife and me and intermittent Zoom with friends and family around the country and world (Ravenna, Italy, Curichiba, Brazil and Paris, France). Will start with Veuve Cliquot, smoked gouda, himalayan pink salt crackers, fig jam. Then because no guests — we don't have to make a turkey. Instead, we’ll roast chicken with sausage stuffing and gravy, mashed Yukon golds, roasted autumnal veggies, pecan and pumpkin crustless pie (in ramekins). Did I mention a bottle of Barolo? I will miss our guests dearly but with just two, we can splurge on higher-end wines! — Dede, Boston, Mass.

Jane Roper sent this photo from a Thanksgiving past, when the table was set for 14 people. This year, it will just be the four members of her immediate family, but they still intend to use her grandmother's china, her other grandmother's silver and her great-grandmother's crystal. (Courtesy)
Jane Roper sent this photo from a Thanksgiving past, when the table was set for 14 people. This year, it will just be the four members of her immediate family, but they still intend to use her grandmother's china, her other grandmother's silver and her great-grandmother's crystal. (Courtesy)

We're staying home with our immediate family, but still planning on turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, gravy and pumpkin pie, dammit! And the National Dog Show — when I found out it was still airing this year I literally almost cried with happiness. — Jane Roper, Melrose, Mass.

I’m glad that I don’t have to pretend to cook a turkey because I prefer ham — and no one will be there to give me grief. Same thing with holiday decorations — I already have my Christmas playlists created. I usually get a lot of pushback from the kids about letting Thanksgiving settle, but they’re not here, so here comes Johnny Mathis! Lastly, we will be playing “Black Jeopardy” with booze with family all over the country. It is the best thing about this pandemic. Also, it is hilarious to see my white husband try to answer when he knows nothing about Black culture. — Deb Beaupre, Meriden, New Hampshire

I’ve declared that I am not going to cook the blasted dried out white meat turkey. We have an outdoor smoker, so I am smoking a rib roast, deliciously rubbed in my favorite seasonings. My husband makes homemade bread and it fills the house with bakery aromas. I am Native American (Eastern Cherokee) and my husband is descended from a servant on the Mayflower, so Thanksgiving was always a discussion of whether I would go protest in Plymouth, or have turkey at home. -- Nina S. Wampler

Since there will only be six of us, my husband is going to make Thanksgiving-themed pizzas: Turkey & cranberry. Butternut squash, ricotta and sage. Potato and rosemary. Maybe brussels sprouts and pancetta. — Nina Max Daly, Brookline, Mass.

Reasons to be grateful  

I am so very thankful that no one in our family has gotten sick. It is often hard to be as careful as we all need to be, but it will all be worth it! Like many people say: We won’t gather this year so we can gather next year. -- Lois Johnson, Mashpee, Mass.

I am thankful my family is healthy, are all mask wearers, and that I have some family locally to celebrate with. I am thankful for the coming vaccines, and thankful that the new administration seems to care about us all. I am thankful for more little things like phone calls, texts, emails and zooms. — Cheryl, Springfield, Mass.

I love the holiday season, and this year I love it more than ever. The pandemic has forced me to focus on planning moments of joy to look forward to, so I'm leaning hard into the holiday rituals that I can still safely do, and looking for new ones to add. — Jaclyn Friedman

Any disappointment I feel about making adjustments now feels tempered by hope. Also science.

Sara Shukla

I’m feeling grateful that we’ve gotten this far. In the spring, the holidays seemed a lifetime away. Any disappointment I feel about making adjustments now feels tempered by hope. Also science. — Sara Shukla, Rhode Island

During an ER shift in a pandemic surge, I’m grateful for that moment when I can take off my n95 mask, surgical mask, goggles and face shield and drink water. This gets me to think about PPE and the relationship between protection and security. My heart jumps to quiet mornings having coffee with my wife and the joy of an unexpected call from my son, who's away at college. I crave moments of laughter with my family and friends, with colleagues and patients, too. I realize that might sound odd, to seek laughter in the ER, a space where fear, tragedy, and loneliness converge. But shared laughter requires lowering our guard. It's a tiny gesture of gratifying vulnerability. — Jay Baruch, M.D., Providence, Rhode Island

I’m thankful for my family’s health and safety. As difficult as schooling is, I’m also thankful to have my children safely at home with us. — H., Cambridge, Mass.

I’m grateful for our happy 3-month-old who is our greatest gift every day. In an extraordinarily difficult year, we feel supremely blessed. — Tafadzwa Muguwe, M.D., Boston, Mass. 

Tafadzwa Muguwe is pictured with his newborn son, Ronan, in the fall of 2020. (Courtesy)
Tafadzwa Muguwe is pictured with his newborn son, Ronan, in the fall of 2020. (Courtesy)

I'm grateful for my loved ones' health, for the imminent end of a hate-filled era, and for the knowledge that we are resourceful and resilient enough to forge a new sort of togetherness. — Julie Wittes Schlack, Cambridge, Mass.

My 40-year-old husband was diagnosed with brain cancer during the pandemic. He has had two craniotomies as a result. I am beyond thankful for the surgery he had last week at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where his neurosurgeon was able to remove the entire tumor. — Ellen Ellis, Chelmsford, Mass.

I have been making masks throughout this time, and am thankful to all the people who have helped me distribute more than 1,400 of them. — Nancy Kelly, Lowell, Mass.

I am thankful for so many things that I can't begin to count! I wish I could make people stop and look around at what they have and stop complaining about what they don't have. — Patricia Garnett, Marshfield, Mass.  

I count my blessings every night when my head hits my pillow; I start with my pillow and go from there. I feel so blessed to have found this truth: If the only prayer you ever say is "thank you," it is enough. — Carolyn Griffin, Plymouth, Mass.

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This segment aired on November 24, 2020.

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