I sat on the couch with a glass of wine to watch a Christmas movie. “What are you doing? You don’t drink wine,” the younger daughter observed.
“It’s December. I drink wine in December.” It started years ago, when we were hosting Thanksgiving. There was always left over wine, and I’d drink it during Advent. It became part of the tradition, along with the tree and Nat’s Christmas album and (inexplicably) Billy Bragg.
For the most part, those things only happen in December. I’m kind of a stickler for seasons. We can only have corn on the cob from the middle of July until the end of August. Fresh strawberries and asparagus are only eaten in June. Football is a fall sport. Christmas music can’t start until the Thanksgiving Day parade is over.
My family makes fun of the rules. We can get strawberries year-round. We can play Christmas music any time. But that’s not the point.
It’s absence that makes togetherness special. It’s eight months of inferior sports that make the start of football season so satisfying. We’re excited about the start of the school year because we’ve had a summer break.
COVID has forced us to live without. We’re living without spending time with friends and family. We’re living without theater and concerts and going out to restaurants. We’re living without normal schedules and school and work and life. We’re living without normalcy.
The COVID experience will affect us like 9/11 did. It will change us like the Kennedy assassination and Pearl Harbor did. It will be seen by history as a disruptive event that permanently altered our culture. In the wake of the pandemic, we’re going to have to redefine what we mean by “normal.” Masks are going to be around for a long time. Some of the arts organizations and small businesses and churches and colleges aren’t going to survive. We’re going to see a decline in people’s willingness to be a part of large crowds. Even when the immediate threat is mitigated, we’ll be carrying the trauma of this experience with us for a long time.
In the before times, we went to Boston to celebrate Independence day with the Pops. For a long time, we met the same people there every year, and for a while our group swelled to over 100. After the marathon bombing in 2013, that number shrank to fewer than 20, only half of whom are local to Boston. The horror of that day lives in the people of that city. Even years later, they’re unable to attend mass gatherings. The traditions had to adapt. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I was thinking that the original version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is the ideal Christmas song for this year. It has that perfect blend of melancholy optimism that allows us to feel sorry for ourselves this year while acknowledging that things will be better next year:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yuletide gay
Next year all our troubles will be miles away
Once again as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us once more
Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now
Christmas is full of nostalgia. But nostalgia can be cruel. We reminisce about an idealized past that never really existed. You’ve never had a Currier & Ives Christmas. You’ve never ridden in a one-horse open sleigh. When you were a kid, your Christmases weren’t always white. How many times have you actually gone caroling? How often do you roast chestnuts? Do you even like chestnuts? It is a magical time, certainly, especially for the young.
But if you find you’re not living up to the Hallmark ideal of what Christmas should be, cut yourself some slack. Let go of the things that you think you should be doing to make Christmas perfect. Work to make Christmas special for the present, not for an idealized past. Someday, you’ll look back fondly on this time because these are the good old days. If you’re going to remember them fondly anyway, you might as well enjoy them being happy while they’re here. Have yourself a merry little Christmas NOW.