Rediscovering the Holiday Spirit in Uncertain Times

A family’s traditions evolve into new shapes with the same underlying sentiment.

For my husband and me, the first Christmas tradition that was really ours was spaghetti and meatballs on Christmas Eve. At least, that was the first one we wanted to keep. Before that, our traditions were exhaustion, discontent, and disappointing both our families. During the first years of our relationship we spent a lot of time apart, so we weren’t willing to split up for holidays. At the time we had the great good fortune that our parents lived only an hour apart from one another, and we are also lucky to be from families that each have strong and beloved holiday traditions. But we were worn down by a long-distance relationship—he stayed in Maine for several years while I lived in Chicago, then Philadelphia, then New Hampshire—and by the difficulties of our respective career stages. Being expected in two places at once, with the homemade foods that had been assigned to us and a budget-straining number of gifts, pushed us firmly into “Bah humbug” territory.

That lasted about eight years. Then, in year nine of our relationship, it occurred to us to get a tree. We had finally settled in Saco, and we had a one-year-old daughter; she might enjoy it. We cut down a balsam fir at the tree farm my husband’s family had always visited, run by the family of his middle-school math teacher. Our parents handed over boxes of ornaments they’d saved from our childhoods; they’d been waiting to pass them on. We both had the exact same red wooden sled, painted with our name and the year 1980; my parents have since bought matching ones for our kids (with appropriate names and years). We agreed on multicolored lights. I acquired intriguing poinsettias from the horticulture department of the university where I work. And we refused to go to more than one place on Christmas Day.

Family diplomacy resulted in one family gathering on Christmas and the other on Boxing Day. But what to do about Christmas Eve? We’d host it ourselves, welcoming anyone who wanted to join and wishing well those who didn’t. Spaghetti and meatballs set the casual, low-stakes tone we wanted.

It worked—for a while. We have photos of our two families and some friends gathered around our table with saucy plates, babies on laps and extra seats squeezed into the corners. We even hosted in 2014, three days after my son was born—a testament to how childbirth strains decision-making skills but also to our love of the tradition. Still, things were changing. My in-laws moved away; my sister started hosting her own gathering; people stopped eating pasta, meat, tomatoes. We reminded ourselves that traditions didn’t have to be forever.

Then: COVID-19. On Christmas Eve of 2020 my husband made a lasagna that was way too big for the four of us, while I made too many Christmas cookies. The lasagna lasted for days, but not the cookies—we bagged them up and the kids delivered them to neighbors. When it got dark we packed a few for ourselves in a Tupperware and drove around the neighborhood, admiring light displays. Without dinner-party cleanup, we were done wrapping presents before 2 a.m.

And this year? While I find myself nostalgic for those cheery gatherings, I’m drawn toward the simplicity of just-the-four-of-us. Once, our enviable family situation was also a burden to bear; now, we find buried within the harms of COVID a small gift. We have seen that our traditions can reshape themselves into forms that fit us, as we are now. The celebration of family and community can persist when the old rituals are gone.

This essay was published in the November/December issue as a part of a collection in which we asked our contributors to describe how their families embrace the holiday season.

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