Pandemic Holidays

COVID-19 laid waste to treasured traditions, and I am here for it.

Joy Frank-Collins
Columbus Monthly

Valentine’s Day is coming. The day we celebrate the patron saint of love by showering our loved ones with tokens of affection. And also, the last major holiday we’ve yet to celebrate as a nation under siege by a deadly virus that has killed nearly half a million people in the U.S. alone. 

While you process that heavy statistic, and perhaps consider passing on reading the rest of this for fear it’s another one of those essays, please indulge me just a bit longer while I offer you the tiniest sliver of a silver lining. 

Remember what Valentine’s Day used to be? Calling every florist in town to secure roses in the exact shade of red as the ones you gave your significant other on your first Valentine’s Day together. Racking your brain to come up with the perfect gift. Worrying it was too much—or too little. The mad rush to book a table at that perfect restaurant. Fighting the crowds in the card aisle of every Walgreens and Target in Central Ohio. 

Well, that was pre-’rona times—i.e., early 2020, before anyone was paying attention to headlines about patients in China with a mysterious flu-like illness. That time feels like it was so long ago, we were most certainly eating brontosaurus steaks and powering our cars by foot. But now it’s 2021 and we live in a masked-up world of stay-at-home advisories, hand sanitizer and social distancing. 

And do you know what that means? The way we used to celebrate everything is now meaningless. 

Take Valentine’s Day, for instance. Roses sent to the office? Meh. They don’t have the same impact if your office is now your home and your co-workers don’t see you receive them. Jewelry? If you can even still afford it, there’s really nowhere to wear it, unless you’re trying to impress the neighbors when you take your weekly walk to the curb with the garbage. Nice dinner out? Surprise, that restaurant—if it’s survived—has even fewer tables now, and somehow spending $150 on a meal that you carry out of the establishment in plastic to-go containers just feels a little less special. 

So what does that leave you with for ‘Rona Valentine’s Day? A card with a heartfelt sentiment written on handmade paper (the new hobby your partner took up during lockdown). The simple act of washing the dishes after dinner instead of expecting someone else to take care of it (because under a stay-at-home advisory, the pile of dirty dishes is never-ending). A joint trip to the doctor’s office, if you’re lucky, for your COVID-19 vaccinations. What better way to say, “The past year sucked, but there’s no one I would rather go through it with than you.” 

And isn’t that what this holiday was supposed to be about in the first place? COVID-19 has taken so much from us, we will likely never be able to quantify the loss. But it’s also given us something incredibly valuable—permission to bid farewell to traditions that no longer serve us. 

It first dawned on me on Thanksgiving. For 20-plus years, my husband, two kids and I celebrated it in Marietta, where many members of my family live. Even once we moved to Columbus in 2018, we continued to make the two-hour drive “home” for dinner, which my family has always served around noon. Which meant I had to wake up bright and early to prepare my contributions to the family potluck. But this year at noon, I hadn’t even started cooking one dish. And while I made a pseudo-traditional meal, it was from recipes my nuclear family enjoys and my comfort-food-loving extended family has made known they do not appreciate. (“Apricots and pineapple in your sweet potatoes? Well, that’s different.”) We feasted, just the four of us, sitting comfortably on the sofas in our living room, plates perched on red Ikea stools as God intended, at our usual 7:30 p.m. dinner time. One kid ate only macaroni and cheese, and no one hassled him for doing so. 

It was later that evening, tucked into bed instead of barreling back up I-70, to-go plates filling the minivan with the odor of cold Brussels sprouts and Pepsi ham, that I confessed to my husband, “This was the best Thanksgiving I can remember ever having.” 

Ditto for Christmas. And New Year’s Eve. 

I wasn’t sad that it was only the four of us celebrating. I missed holiday parties for a hot second, until I realized I wouldn’t have to squeeze into two pairs of Spanx in an attempt to fit into a cocktail dress sized for my pre-lockdown, and, let’s face it, pre-mid-40s body. I didn’t regret missing the chance to play the role of “corporate wife” for my husband’s work-sponsored holiday functions. I wasn’t heartbroken that I didn’t spend Christmas Day in the presence of any number of my four sisters and their kids and their kids’ kids, people talking over each other, toddlers treating everyone like human jungle gyms, and all of us sweating profusely because the house is always too damn hot. And I was absolutely giddy that I didn’t have to bite my tongue when the political comments started to flow after my sister and aunt had a couple of glasses of bourbon slush. 

It turns out, with everything crappy that the virus dealt us—and I know that word doesn’t begin to touch the torture this pandemic has made of the past 11 months, especially for those who have lost jobs or family members—for me at least, there emerged something for which I am incredibly thankful. The disruption caused by COVID-19 and our efforts not to unwittingly kill our family, friends and neighbors, or ourselves, has released us from those traditions that we’ve outgrown. 

Is Easter your best time for a vacay, but you’ve been reluctant to go because it means the kids will miss the annual community egg hunt? Well, not running around a park searching for plastic eggs filled with nasty jellybeans didn’t kill them last year, did it? Pack the candy, reassure the kiddos that the Easter Bunny will find them and take the vacation. 

Do you secretly hate the annual Fourth of July picnic your friends have hosted for the past 20 years? Too hot, too buggy, too many foods with the potential to strike you down with a wicked case of food poisoning? Constantly overwhelmed with worry that your surgeon friend who insists on staging a pyrotechnics display with shells he snuck across the border from Mexico will blow his hand off? Good news! 

You didn’t go last year, and your friends still have Zoom happy hours with you. You’re good. 

Think turkey tastes like a dirty dishrag? By the power vested in me by the virus that is corona, I release you to have lasagna or butter chicken or gazpacho for Thanksgiving. Love pumpkin pie? Serve yourself up a giant slice with whipped cream piled high for St. Patrick’s Day. Hate the hullabaloo that is New Year’s Eve? Go find yourself a nice off-the-grid cabin in the Hocking Hills and spend the last night of the year cozied down with a book in front of a roaring fire instead of in some hotel ballroom with your best friends and 500 strangers, drinking cheap Champagne and wearing a cardboard top hat. 

You are free! 

Truth be told, 2020 was always going to be a year of change for me and my family. My mother sold the house she owned for the past 30 years and moved to Arizona. Christmas dinner was never again going to be eaten with 16-odd relatives crammed around the dining room table, sitting at the island in the kitchen and spilling into the front room in that brown brick ranch in Marietta. Mom will be taking her Pepsi ham to holiday celebrations with other family members now. Perhaps thinking of the abandoned get-together as an act of civic responsibility takes the sting out of something that was actually forced upon us by my mother’s decision to finally move on after Dad’s death five years ago. But I think there’s a little more to it than that. 

I believe in traditions and recognize the importance of honoring the past, but I am also over doing things simply because that’s the way we’ve always done it. We live in a world that is constantly changing; it only makes sense that we should, too. Nostalgia is wonderful—but not when it traps us in a loop with a past we’ve left behind. And the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that breaking with traditions isn’t the end of the world. In fact, it could herald the start of something completely new and beautiful. Like my mother, I’m ready to move on. 

Now, let’s just hope the pandemic is over in time for my family to get on a plane and celebrate Christmas 2021 lounging on a beach somewhere in the Caribbean.