Presence, not presents: Finding meaning in a minimalist Christmas

Presence, not presents: Finding meaning in a minimalist Christmas

Why We Wrote This

While many people are forgoing big Christmas gatherings this year, they are finding ways to bond with family members in the traditional spirit of the holiday rather than traveling and spending lots of money. 

Paula Bronstein/AP

A father and daughter decorate for Christmas in Portland, Oregon, on Nov. 24, 2020.

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December 22, 2020

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For the first time, Gretchen Rubin won’t be able to spend the holidays with her parents. It’s a refrain heard around the globe as people forgo traveling, and it comes with deep sadness. But Ms. Rubin, a happiness expert, says that stripping down the season to its basics opens a certain space to prioritize and preserve the “essence of the holidays.”

That might include cutting down a fragrant Christmas tree or creating platters of cookies. For Ms. Rubin, it means filling her home in New York City with paperwhite narcissus flowers. They evoke for her the iconic smell of the season – one that filled her childhood home in Kansas City, Missouri. “[The pandemic] is helping us realize how precious our traditions are and how much we do value them,” she says.

For Katharine May, author of the book “Wintering,” which is an ode to the fallow season but also treats it as a metaphor for the tough times in life that can be restorative, this period of forced isolation has been a reminder of “exactly what we need Christmas for.”

“I’m not hearing so much about presents and buying the toy of the year,” she says. “I’m hearing a lot more about how we can connect.”

Toronto

Katherine May loves winter, from the cozy comforts of being indoors to the “blustery outdoor stuff.” But she is no great fan of Christmas – or at least the busywork that starts two months ahead of Dec. 25 and leaves her depleted before it even arrives. “I’m quite well known in my family for opening my Christmas cards standing over the recycling bin and just throwing them in,” she says.

Ms. May, author of the book “Wintering,” which is an ode to the fallow season but also treats it as a metaphor for the tough times in life that can be restorative, for years simply sent out an email greeting at Christmas. This year, however, she ordered custom cards – with images of foxes, polar bears, and festive fireworks. She also lit up her home in Whitstable, on the southeastern coast of England, in a blaze of lights as the days began to darken in November.

She started making her Christmas food earlier, too, family favorites such as pickled piccalilli and red cabbage. This year the holidays, she says, are tinged with loss – they are the first she will spend without her mother – but she is also anticipating a period of rest that sounds “a bit like heaven.” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Rick Krugger holds a tree for Ani and Brian Deery and their daughters as the family looks for a tree at Mistletoe Acres Tree Farm in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

Like millions around the world, she is navigating the holidays amid a once-in-a-century pandemic that has dramatically altered lifestyles and brought many traditions to a halt. Christmas markets, trips to the mall to sit on Santa’s lap, 20-person dinners, office parties to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa – all have been canceled or pared down. So, too, have been gatherings in churches.

For those in the Northern Hemisphere, the season also brings the shortest days of the year, which may amplify the isolation many people are feeling as they cope with COVID-19. Yet Ms. May is not the only one to say she is finding something comforting about this year’s holiday. She is envisioning a simpler, more intimate affair, without the incessant buzz of commercialism, providing an opportunity to embrace the real spirit of the season.

“I think we’re getting back in contact with exactly what we need Christmas for,” she says. “I’m not hearing so much about presents and buying the toy of the year. I’m hearing a lot more about how we can connect.”


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Customs reimagined

A larger-than-life nutcracker – an actor on stilts – approaches a line of cars, towering nearly as tall as the surrounding trees lit up in twinkling red, white, and green lights. Canadian Tire’s Christmas Trail, set up on the north side of Toronto, is a one-mile journey through a winter wonderland of elaborate light installations, live dancers in fairy costumes, and faux snowfall.

Beata Zawrzel/Nurphoto/Getty Images

People snap pictures of illuminated Christmas decorations in a largely empty Podgórski Square in Kraków, Poland.

But the holiday spectacle this year is unlike any in the past, if one of the signature activities is anything to judge by. At the end of the drive, volunteers ask visitors to roll down their windows – with their masks on – to appear in a photo with Santa, who stands at the side of the car.

This is just one way that the 2020 holiday season is being re-imagined. Beloved Christmas markets, which have their roots in Germany and Austria in the Middle Ages and remain a major attraction across Europe and other parts of the world, are going online. Cities and towns are holding their annual holiday parades virtually, and ballet companies are streamlining renditions of “The Nutcracker.”

Department stores, mainstays of the holiday season, have had to strike a fragile balance, as they mount their annual advertisements and displays amid a darker national mood. (An annual holiday survey by Deloitte Canada showed that holiday spending in the country is expected to fall 18% this season. At the same time, Canadians say they are increasing their charitable donations by an average of 86%.)

Macy’s, which has featured its famous holiday window displays in New York City since 1874, dedicated this year’s to thanking essential workers, first responders, and marchers for inequality. The John Lewis & Partners Christmas advertisement, one of the most anticipated in the United Kingdom, chose “Give a Little Love” as its theme. The department store says it was “inspired by the huge wave of kindness that swept across the country” amid the pandemic.

Laura Cluthé/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Harry and Barb Piwerka decorated their house in Whitby, Ontario, with 9,000 Christmas lights and handmade characters. Since the local Christmas parade was canceled, the Piwerkas agreed to install a sleigh and reindeer in their yard.

Ideas for how to celebrate a COVID-19 holiday, and cope with the winter ahead, have been shared across social media: from crocheting blankets and making gingerbread houses, to plunging into frozen lakes and reveling in forests. 

Gretchen Rubin, author of “Happier at Home” and “The Happiness Project,” is spending the holidays without her parents for the first time. It’s a refrain heard around the globe as people forgo traveling, and it comes with deep sadness. But the happiness expert says that stripping down the season to its basics opens a certain space to prioritize and preserve the “essence of the holidays.” That might include cutting down a fragrant spruce or balsam fir at a Christmas tree farm. It might mean creating platters of cookies – chocolate crinkles, buckeyes, or linzer tarts. 

For Ms. Rubin, it means filling her home in New York City with paperwhite narcissus flowers. They evoke for her the iconic smell of the season – one that filled her childhood home in Kansas City, Missouri. “[The pandemic] is helping us realize how precious our traditions are and how much we do value them,” she says. 

Creating new traditions

“Over by Christmas” is a familiar theme, a refrain that British and other Allied soldiers heard in 1914, at the start of World War I, as experts predicted the conflict would end only a few months after it started. The optimism turned out to be cruelly wrong – off by four years and millions of casualties. 

Today the reassuring comfort of the holidays is invoked in a different way, not as a prediction of when the pandemic will end but as an incentive to get people to help stop it. In guiding countries through a second wave of COVID-19, many political leaders urged residents in the fall to adhere to public health guidelines as a way to “save” Christmas.

Michael Probst/AP

A sparse crowd strolls Römerberg square in Frankfurt, Germany. Usually people throng the area when the traditional Christmas market is set up, but this year the market was canceled due to the coronavirus.

A few months ago, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged Canadians to act now in wearing masks and social distancing so the virus could be brought under control enough to allow people to celebrate the holidays. Similarly, French President Emmanuel Macron, who tested positive and is in isolation until Christmas Eve, said he hoped his country’s second lockdown would preserve Christmas.

But many leaders who sought to promise some semblance of normalcy this season have had to shift course. Plans in Britain to allow people to meet with friends or family members in limited social “bubbles” have been canceled in hard-hit areas like London amid the detection of a new strain of the coronavirus. Some of Germany’s most beloved traditions, such as caroling in churches, have also been called off. Even many of the simplest Yuletide traditions are being discouraged or jettisoned.

“I think there are a lot of customs, there are traditions and so forth, all of which scream to the individual, ‘Go be with family, get together with your loved ones,’” says Craig Smith, an associate professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. “And for many that can be a very dangerous visit. Part of what we need to do is to come up with alternatives to lessen the sense of isolation and the feelings of loneliness.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

A holiday wreath hangs on a door on Main Street in Hingham, Massachusetts.

Noreen Sibanda, a registered provisional psychologist in Edmonton, Alberta, encourages more creativity in connecting with people, like making traditional food and delivering it to family members. She says while many people may feel down at the holidays because they’re isolated, this year virtually everyone is on their own to some degree. “We are all going through it,” she says.

Another strategy is to adopt a “positive winter mindset,” says Kari Leibowitz, a health psychologist and interdisciplinary graduate fellow at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. She studied the way residents in Tromsø, Norway, a town 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, survive their polar nights, when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon for two months in the winter. (Tromsø also happens to be included in a chapter in Ms. May’s “Wintering,” detailing her search to capture a glimpse of the northern lights.) 

Ms. Leibowitz found that, instead of feeling dread about winter, many see it as an opportunity to spend more time outdoors – a concept called friluftsliv in Norwegian (“open air life”) – and engage in the same kind of socializing that the pandemic demands of societies around the world, warm or cold. It’s twinned with another Nordic concept called koselig in Norwegian – and better known for its Danish name, hygge – which is a mood of coziness or comfort, an ideal people can embrace while staying indoors during isolating times. 

“So trying to look for the opportunities in the situation, especially with the pandemic that nobody really wants to be in, is a way that we can adopt this wintertime mindset of looking at the possibilities rather than just focusing on the ways in which we’re limited,” says Ms. Leibowitz.

That’s not to negate what’s been taken away, she says. Each December she and her roommates usually host a huge latke party: They turn 60 pounds of potatoes into pancakes. She says she is mourning the loss of that tradition this year. And yet she is also looking forward to a quieter, more restful season – not traveling across the country and visiting so many family members that she needs a vacation afterward. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Holiday pails that say “Be merry” are filled with greenery at Weston Nurseries in Hingham, Massachusetts.

“If we focus only on how much we’re missing, we can’t see anything that we’re gaining,” Ms. Leibowitz says.

She believes it could also lead to different ways of viewing and experiencing the holidays. “It’s an opportunity to take a pause and reevaluate some of our holiday traditions this year and see if we want to do things a little differently, moving forward, with a little bit more intention, that is a little bit more aligned with our values rather than, ‘Oh, this is what we do, because this is what we’ve always done.’”

“Invite the winter in”

Rethinking the holidays strikes a chord with many. Last Christmas, Susanna Shetley, an editor at the Smoky Mountain News in North Carolina, traveled with her family – a blended one that includes five children between the ages of 8 and 16 – to New York City. They saw the Radio City Rockettes. They went to Rockefeller Center. They went ice skating and visited the window displays on Fifth Avenue. It had capped off a month of holiday functions and school events. She got home on Dec. 22 in time to wrap all her family’s presents. 

This year is just the opposite. With no events and no travel, they decided to start new traditions at home. They bought a puzzle after Thanksgiving – a city scene at Christmas – with the goal of finishing and framing it before Dec. 25. They purchased a big wreath and decorated it with berries and ribbons.

“I think that the pandemic has made me realize that the holidays don’t have to be so hectic,” she says.

Laura Cluthé/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Canadian Tire’s Christmas Trail, which runs through a northern district of Toronto, is a one-mile drive that features light displays, live dancers, and elves handing out cookies.

Schereeya Reed has a different outlook, too. A young mother of two who says she struggles with depression during winter months, she recently tweeted: “I will be embracing the dark, cold months. Channeling my inner winter fairy. Baking cozy foods and watching cozy movies. Going outside for sunshine every day. Pretending to be Nordic and having Cozy Winter.”

Ms. Reed, who lives in Pittsburgh but is originally from North Carolina, is also starting an Instagram Live and TikTok program called “The Schereeya Show.” As she advertises it: “It’s designed to bring sunshine to the increasingly darker days of Pandemic Winter.”

And that includes during the holidays. Not a fan of Christmas herself, having grown up in a religious family that eschewed the capitalism associated with Christmas, she says she and her husband have never put up a tree. This year they are planning on putting up two, decorating their apartment, walking around the neighborhood to marvel at other light displays, and preparing a constant flow of hot beverages. 

“I think it’s probably accurate to say that this is the first Christmas that I’m allowing myself to feel jolly, I guess, like allowing myself to just participate in the joy of it all,” Ms. Reed says. “Because of the pandemic, I definitely feel like you have to do everything you can to promote and sustain your own joy.”

Ms. May, the author of “Wintering,” says she expects the holidays this year will be a metaphorical winter for many people – a time when unwanted change arrives.

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Her book came out in the United Kingdom right before the pandemic made everything familiar unfamiliar. And she says she has returned to it for guidance during the second lockdown, amid the normally bustling holiday season and the darkest days of the year.

“We must learn to invite the winter in,” she writes in the book. “We may never choose to winter, but we can choose how.”

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