Contemplating the Holidays Without My Extended Family
One of my brothers-in-law recently noted that the lack of family gatherings over the last seven months has thrown off his internal calendar. We have a large extended family–and it’s the celebrations and gatherings with those relatives that help mark the passage of time and distinguish one week, one month, one season from another.
If ever there was a time that we could benefit from the rhythm and joy of family gatherings, it’s now. And yet, if ever there was a time that we could benefit from staying away from each other, it’s now.
So, what to do with the holidays? In normal years, we would host anywhere from 20 to 30-something on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Our mid-century modern house isn’t huge, but its open floor plan allows everyone to be together in the same space whether cooking or engrossed in conversation. On Thanksgiving, we drag extra tables and chairs up from the garage, and each individual family contributes dishes and their labor to the effort. On Christmas, the base of the tree is smothered in gifts we exchange through Secret Santa and a hilarious Yankee Swap. I love watching the cousins of my children’s generation curl up together on our wraparound sofa like one long genetic sequence.
We are lucky: there is no embarrassing drunk uncle disrupting dinner. I am lucky: I never feel burdened by the toll of the work because there are so many hands offering help. If it sounds nauseatingly civilized, I suppose it is. I embrace the winter holidays with a passion that would provoke eye rolling among cynics, an association to which I belong the other ten months of the year.
This year with the pandemic still raging and travel fraught with peril, some of our family members are spread far enough away that they might as well live on another planet. My daughter, who just graduated from college in May, will be spending Thanksgiving in Alaska where she currently lives, returning for a week or two at Christmas. My son, a sophomore in college, is not allowed to come home for Thanksgiving unless he stays here through Christmas and winter break. So, we will be empty nesters for the first time ever at Thanksgiving. My sister recently moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin, to be with her daughter. I have two sisters-in-law who, with their families, live flights away, one in Europe. They haven’t seen any of their siblings (there are seven) or their ninety-three-year-old dad in nearly a year.
We’ve had a few conversations about the possibility of mini gatherings of six-ten. We’ve also considered the question, could Thanksgiving be held outdoors? We bought a restaurant-grade deck heater that could warm a handful of guests. But what if it rains or snows? We’re fortunate that our kids will be able to return home for Christmas. But because one will have been on a plane, the other on campus, we will likely stay clear of our extended family in December.
None of this is tragic of course–we are healthy, for now. More intimate versions of yearly traditions are hardly a disaster. The upside: a reasonable size turkey, one less tray of stuffing and more in-depth conversation.
I’ve noticed that my family and friends are careful not to complain too much about their pandemic malaise, acutely aware of the kind of emotional, physical and economic suffering that plagues so much of the country. There is guilt attached to wallowing when others have it worse. But perhaps one holiday gift we can give ourselves and those in our orbit is the freedom to acknowledge how much this has impacted us–changed us–left us without many simple joys, like connecting over a turkey and stuffing, around a tree, or to light candles.
As anyone who has had a birthday in this pandemic season understands, our celebrations this holiday season will be different–or at least they should be. And while they will be stunted, we may find in them something new, and some familiar comfort in their rhythms and joy.