The holidays are my favorite time of the year. As soon as autumn shows up, on September 22 (my birthday, no less), I am ready to ease into late fall and winter, into a time of gathering in and hibernating. While my family practices the Christian faith, we also welcome in the changing of the seasons as a spiritual practice and recognize the sacredness of this time of year for many people across spiritual backgrounds.
This year, I’ve noticed people are putting up their Christmas decorations early, trying to create a spirit of love and celebration in the midst of a really difficult year. The holidays often work as a sort of comfortable façade for whatever hard stuff we are going through, but for many people the holidays are fraught with grief, stress, and loneliness that is inescapable.
This year is no different and is, on many levels, much worse. Many people are choosing to celebrate the holidays safely from home, forgoing celebrations with family and friends. We may very well spend the holiday season wondering what Trump is going to tweet next and how many superspreader events will take place across the country before 2021.
A week before Thanksgiving, when I brought up the menu to my family, our oldest child said in tears, “What’s the point of eating all this food if we can’t share it with anyone?” We continue to practice cycles of grief and gratitude knowing that many things are not as they should be this holiday season, and that holding the tension of all of it is really important.
The holidays are going to suck in 2020, and I think acknowledging this reality will help us get through them—together. As we harken to the Christmas songs of Bing Crosby, Mariah Carey, and Frank Sinatra, we are also fully aware that this season isn’t as magical as we might hope it could be. People are jobless, they’ve lost loved ones, the pandemic rages on, it seems as though the president doesn’t care and is actively wrecking the nation, and we are carrying collective grief with all of it.
But if we look at the history, at least of some of the most popular Christmas songs, there’s an interesting connection to what’s happening today. For example, in the midst of WW II, America was flailing with loss and grief, and Bing Crosby brought the song “White Christmas” to the forefront of people’s hearts and minds. The National WWII Museum says of the song, “The desire to be home for Christmas was a feeling that was amplified by the war. Millions were entering military service and were separated from home for the first time at Christmas.” In that same era and beyond, holiday songs continued to top the charts, which, for better or worse, gave us the holiday nostalgia so many carry today.
This year people are hosting virtual gatherings where they’ll toast to one another with the hope of a good internet connection, mask up to go to the grocery store for ingredients for a special dinner, and notice the empty chair at the dinner table where a loved one should have been. We are raw, spiraling in continual loss, exhausted by the gross negligence of the current administration, and the most many of us can muster is an evening with some comfort food and new holiday entertainment like Jingle Jangle, The Christmas Chronicles, or the popular show Dash and Lily.
What I most want to remind us of is that it’s okay to not be okay right now. We shouldn’t have to force celebration when we are all so exhausted. We can light our candles and grieve. We can cry together at the dinner table. We can name out loud that we are lonely, because so many of us are.
So much of what I have learned about cycles of grief comes from my Indigenous ancestors, from those in Indigenous communities who have taught me to trust what seasons of acknowledgment and healing look like. In my tribe, the Potawatomi tribe, winter is the time to tell stories. When the snow is thick on the ground, we gather in, we watch the fire, and we remember who we are. The children learn that everything isn’t okay all the time, but we can remind ourselves of our resilience in difficult times. We will tell stories about this holiday season when we are older, remembering it for all its pain and grief, for the new traditions created out of hardship. We will sing songs and hold out hope for a better world.
This year I started a new grief ritual with my children, where we light four candles as we name things we are grieving out loud. After acknowledging grief, we blow out the candles, and then we light them again as we name gratitude and hope for the coming season or even new year. This ritual has helped ground us in realities that this season brings and reminded us that being human means we feel a variety of emotions and experiences on the path to healing.
For now it’s okay to cope with what’s left of 2020. It’s okay to be angry that we have to create new traditions out of angst. Because even if we are dreaming of a white Christmas, or of a holiday season that can somehow be healing and restorative, we are recognizing that the world can sometimes be an exhausting place to exist in, and yet we exist in it together.
Check in with your friends and family this holiday season. Write letters of gratitude and journal about your grief. Light candles for the ones you’ve lost and vow to never forget what selfish leadership costs people. Maybe if we can collectively acknowledge the difficult tension of this upcoming season, we can find a way to get to the other side of it, forever telling these stories of our grief, our resilience, and our healing, as we go.