We’re finally approaching the winter holidays in 2020, the year that wouldn’t end. Some of us barely have anything left in the tank. But we’re here. We’re crawling up to the finish line.
Now how will we get through this one last Different Thing? Because I don’t know about you, but my 2020 holidays don’t quite look like other years. And holidays are a hard thing to have to be Different.
As I’ve said before, I fall into the “how can I avoid self-pity and stagnation?” camp rather than the camp of “my human rights are under siege and I am not safe.” If you’re not safe right now, don’t worry about Doing the Holidays Right. You can sit this one out. Do what you need to do—love your people, let them love you—and don’t sweat anything that puts you under stress.
If you’re like me, though, and the biggest thing you have to deal with is how hard it feels to have your holiday traditions changed around, let’s dive into what we can do to make the holidays in 2020 feel more meaningful. Different isn’t always bad.
If you’re dealing with how hard it feels to have your holiday traditions changed around, let’s dive into what we can do to make the holidays in 2020 feel more meaningful.
First: The Holidays Themselves
Whatever you celebrate, you’re probably used to celebrating it with family or friends. Gathering together with beloved people, when it’s cold outside but you’re all surrounded by candles and light and laughter, is one of the most meaningful things about winter holidays. But this year, gathering is complicated. And air travel, the way many of us reach our beloveds in the first place, is complicated too.
If you’re lucky enough to be with your beloveds this winter, treasure them. Give them extra hugs. Tell them how much you love them. Let them tell you the same. Let this be the year that made us all kinder, that brought us to forgiveness or moved us to repair old bonds. Most of us will not be celebrating with our beloveds, so on behalf of all of us who will be home alone, please light this holiday season up with genuine, selfless love.
If your holiday family this year is smaller than usual or if you’re spending the holidays by yourself: welcome. You’re not truly alone. There will be so many of us all over the world having a similar experience. The first thing to do is to reach out to someone else who might be lonely and give them comfort. You might be surprised how much better it makes you feel.
You can replicate some parts of your normal holiday experience. Think of the sounds and smells and sights that mean Holiday to you and replicate them wherever you are. Fry the latkes. String the lights. Burn the incense, say the prayers, play the music. The sensory experience of any precious memory is one of the surest ways to keep the memory alive.
You can infuse your old traditions with new meaning. Usually my mom starts playing Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas album at top volume before the sun comes up. We all—my dad, their four adult children, their spouses, the dog—stumble dopily into the kitchen for coffee and grumble about it. It’s a moment worn smooth by repetition. This year, even though there will be no one but my husband and me in the house, I’ll get up early and put the kettle on and turn on the music with glee. Then I’ll start a video call with my mom. I expect it will be a little bit sad, but I also expect there will be joy. And I expect I’ll end these holidays more flexible about what constitutes “Holidays” in the future.
You can create new traditions. I’m stocking up now on beeswax candles. There’s something special to me about the way real beeswax smells as it melts. It’s like the room is made of warm, glowing honey. I think I’ll light my candles and make a pot of herbal tea and place some calls to people I cherish. I think I’ll write letters, real letters on real stationery, to the family members I won’t see. Maybe I’ll write some letters to old friends too. If I were more extroverted I’d do something creative with music and dancing and video, but I’ll leave it to you social butterflies to figure that one out.
I might make a new tradition of reflecting on how fortunate I am to have had so many years of holidays the way I like them. Many people have never had holidays the way they wish they could be even once.
Second: The Whole Winter Season
Winter is hard. It sucks to be cold, and it sucks when it’s dark. But remember the Danish concept of hygge. There are other ways to experience winter than shivering and waiting it out. It is possible to focus on warmth and light and very snazzy socks.
In addition to making your world cozier this winter, here are some ways to make the holidays and beyond more meaningful.
Do you have a spiritual practice? Deepen it. Commit some more time to your meditation, your reading, your service to others, your prayers. Winter holidays are often associated with strong religious traditions, and there’s a reason for that: Winter is full of life metaphors. So even if you don’t have a spiritual practice, consider celebrating something specific to the season. At solstice, when days start getting longer again, take some time for gratitude. Make a list of the ways you’ve made the best of the dark. Look at what’s changing for the brighter.
Is justice important to you? Work for it. The big November election wasn’t the only one; there are ballot measures and attorneys general and school board members and all kinds of local issues to watch. My city has another election in December. Social movements are strong right now; consider making them stronger. Raise funds for your community organizers. Find out what your local leaders need and figure out how to give it.
Do people around you need help? Help them. Your neighbors might be lonely; maybe you can make them cards and leave them at their doors. There are houseless people who can’t get groceries; bring them hand warmers and sanitary supplies. There are families living with food insecurity, especially since many schools are closed; find out what local teachers are doing to feed the children (because I guarantee they’re doing something) and give them your support.
Above all, treasure what is meaningful about this holiday season. If you are experiencing grief, that’s okay. Don’t skip it. Grief is real and important and our hearts are big enough to honor it. But if there are some little bits of joy in there, glittering amid the blue, celebrate those. You can allow yourself to feel all the feelings while also practicing the discipline of gratitude.
This has already been a year that strengthened us. Let it also be the year that softens us.