Holidays Upended

Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

“You know this is our COVID year. Let’s accept it. It’s not like last year and it’s not, hopefully, going to be like next year.” — Michael Osterholm, University of Minnesota

How will we enter holiday season this year? An unwanted guest is at the door—perhaps several. The villainous virus hangs in the air. The election threatens to divide us. Flames of racism rise from what we thought were ashes. Who is welcome? How do we gather?

I approach the end of the calendar year 2020 with a heaviness. I mourn the loss of outdoor visiting season. I have put the garden to bed. The lawn furniture is in the garage with a few pieces still on the porch awaiting a warm front to welcome socially distanced guests.

I grieve the loss of overflowing holidays that must be sacrificed to COVID-19. Last year’s Thanksgiving with a mix of friends, family, and weather orphans will not happen in cautious COVID time. How do we cook a turkey for two? Or why?

Thanksgiving is a celebratory ritual flowing out of the harvest season’s abundance. A 20-pound turkey fills the oven. The dining room table is stretched to its capacity. An extra table opens for the kids. Guests come laden with the dishes that fill and spill onto and beyond the buffet. Apple and pumpkin pies wait in the kitchen for space to open.

A prayer settles the din for a minute or two until the Amen! when voices again clamor to be heard. How can we submit to a quiet Thanksgiving? Who will fill the places? Where will all the sounds go?

The December holidays are on the chopping block too—Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s Eve—office parties, church pageants, holiday concerts, noisemakers, laughter, excesses. Even the Guthrie’s perennial Dickens Christmas Carol is AWOL.

This season of joy, family, and festivities is closed until further notice. I am sad. I trust it will be different next year—but even trusting is a challenge now.

Given that there is almost nothing normal about 2020, how might I approach this holiday season? If I lived in Texas, I would have an outdoor Thanksgiving. We would deep fry a turkey and gather six feet apart to celebrate all for which we are thankful. The white bread in the stuffing would be replaced by cornbread. We would fry okra, steam collard greens, bake a pie from gathered pecans.

I spent one Christmas in India. We feasted outside on foods that did not come close to my usual Christmas traditions, yet it was still Christmas. Midnight Mass sparkled with jewel toned silk saris. Even the Madonna was dressed in a gold sari, a bindi on her forehead.

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I know there are lessons here. You don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it. Amidst the losses are seeds of new beginnings.Alas, I live in Minnesota and it’s too cold to be outside for dinner on these holidays. And it’s too dangerous to be inside. It doesn’t, however, keep me from being grateful on Thanksgiving or a conduit of peace in December. This might be the perfect opportunity to tell those near how much they mean to me, especially when we can’t be together, that they are important, too important to risk our health and life for a dangerous holiday gathering.

While I will miss the family that won’t gather this year, I still miss the family that can’t. My parents with whom I spent 50+ Thanksgivings, are no longer here. My aunts and uncles, my grandmother, my grandfather, my sister, that annoying cousin. They are all gone. Maybe 2020 is the Thanksgiving I recall all those who have died and assemble their memories around a table laden with gratitude, grace and good will.

My in-laws have a tradition to speak a word of thanks to the person sitting to your right. I will adopt that with my gathered memory clan. To my paternal grandmother I would say, “Thank you for your robust laughter,” which she passed on to my father. He and she would laugh, unable to speak, tears running down their cheeks. We would look on, wondering what was so funny, then join in anyway, catching the contagion of laughter.

I would thank my maternal grandfather for the gift of calm, steady presence. He always had a lap available for a crying grandchild, tears soon dried and smiles restored.

My mother would be seated close to the kitchen, ready to refill empty bowls and platters, remembering, too late, the cranberry salad stored in the unheated attic. She was always surprised when someone suggested turning on a football game. “On Thanksgiving?”, she would ask.

The cousins who long ago started their own traditions would be welcome at my spirited table. I’d love to catch up on their lives, progeny, adventures. We would name those who died too young and say a blessing for them. It would be a Thanksgiving of memories not soon forgotten.

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I know there are lessons here. You don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it. Amidst the losses are seeds of new beginnings. The leaves layered in my compost bin are relaxing into their transition to fertile humus for spring gardens. Newly planted daffodil and tulips bulbs will be among the first green shoots I’ll discover in the March melting landscape. The rhododendron and azalea buds already hold petals of spring blossoms. In the decay and loss hides a rich reservoir of new life.

This is a year unlike any other in our time. We are in communal grief, wandering in and among its stages. Some of us reside in the first stage, denial. It is not happening, I don’t believe it, I don’t know anyone with it. Others of us have moved into anger. I am tired of this, it’s not fair, it is interfering with my freedoms. The third stage is bargaining. If I disinfect, surely all will be just fine. The fourth stage is depression. Here we give up, go inward, isolate. When we see someone in this stage, it is time to give them a call, send an email, check if they are okay.

The final stage is acceptance. This is how it is this year. Michael Osterholm continues, “Let’s accept it…So if you really love the people that you have in your immediate family…think through this. And actually do them the greatest gift of all, that is distance yourself this year and don’t expose them.”

Not all holidays look the same. This one is for the record books. Years from now, when we look back, we will remember it all. Since it will be different, let’s embrace it, celebrate it in new ways, and trust that next year we will gather together again.

Mary Lou Logsdon is a Spiritual Director in the Twin Cities. She teaches in the Sacred Ground Spiritual Direction Formation Program. She can be contacted at logsdon.marylou @

Last Updated on November 24, 2020

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