From Mav: As I finished teaching one of my Friday only classes, one of my students wished me a “Have a Happy Thanksgiving… or whatever” on his way out the door. It struck me that he was not just trying to be nice; as he was finishing the statement he realized the relative futility of the words. Happy Thanksgiving is just one of the things you wish people at this time of year. He’d probably said it to dozens of teachers on his way out of class right before break. But this time, I think he realized that I wouldn’t really be having a happy Thanksgiving. Neither would he. it’s 2020… the world of COVID. No one is really doing Thanksgiving. At least not as we know it. But he said it anyway.
It’s probably been pretty clear where we stand on the COVID-19 pandemic on this show. We’re firmly on team-wear-a-mask-social-distance-and-stay-the-fuck-home. Hell, we changed our show graphic to include an N95 mask over our microphone months ago. But even more so these last few weeks I’ve seen people in the social media landscape complaining about the various pandemic restrictions and planning to ignore them in order to celebrate the holidays with their loved ones. And it’s not just the people I expect it from. Yeah, of course the MAGA people who didn’t really believe in COVID in the first place are rejecting things. That’s to be expected. It’s stupid, but it’s to be expected. What’s more surprising is that people who are otherwise worried about it are also making exceptions right now. We don’t get it.
Trump’s not really-an-expert on the pandemic response team, Scott Atlas, has actually encouraged people to break CDC protocol and celebrate with their families because “what if this is Grandma’s last Thanksgiving”… completely ignoring that it’s more likely to be her last one if you infect her. And again. I expect that “logic” to make sense to some people. But it seems to be landing with others as well. There’s a sense of “well, what’s the point if we can’t celebrate the holidays with family?” And while maybe I’m selfish when I think “life” is the point. I kinda wonder why so many other people don’t see it that way in even the best of times. Much less with a pandemic that makes it dangerous.
Why do people want to spend every holiday with their families anyway? My family, for instance, has been spread out across the country for the better part of 30 years. It’s actually rare that I do see them all in person on the holidays. Maybe one or two of them. And sure I’ll do a FaceTime call or something. And yeah, it’s nice. When I don’t get to see them, I miss them. But that’s always true. I miss them in like July too. But for some reason for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa… basically the November and December corridor, people seem specifically insistent on trying to get together with family. What is the fascination with “WE MUST ALL CONGREGATE EVEN IN DEFIANCE OF SCIENCE AND EAT TOGETHER” that is specific to this four week period?
I certainly think people miss their families. I get that. This has been going on for a while. And they miss their friends too. But I’ve been reading people posting stuff on social media saying “if they think I’m giving up Thanksgiving for this, they’re crazy. Enough is enough!” I’m not quite clear on who “they” is. I don’t think viruses really care about your holiday plans. Is it just frustration or is Thanksgiving really so magical a holiday that it is just worth risking the health of everyone you love… and the people around them so that you can stare at each other while you eat? I mean, it was my understanding that most people hated their families at holiday dinners anyway, because who wants to sit around and argue with their drunk uncle about “how great America was before they let in the Mexicans and gave women the vote”? Like, we literally just had an election where we voted out a would-be super-villain who is still actively fighting the results and that is NOT going to be over by Thursday. Do you REALLY want to be at a large family gathering right now?
From Katya: I see two related issues that Mav is picking up here. One is that the holidays are going to be weird because of COVID, traditions should be changed so that people can be safe. Second, traditions are already different and have always been changing – so what exactly are we holding out for anyway?
This year I won’t be going home for the holidays at all which means I won’t see my family at all in 2020 since the last time I saw them was for Christmas 2019. I also recently relocated after finishing my PhD (as did many friends) so we can’t do the same friend-centric holiday traditions either. So my traditions are shifting. I bought my first holiday decorations this year at 30 because I’ve never been home long enough to enjoy them (and justify another box in the closet the rest of the year). My friends and I are making a virtual recipe list of all of our friends-giving standbys from graduate school and sending photos back and forth. I’m trying to figure out how to do x-mas morning with my family in VR (accepting any tips!)
I think this is a year to think about what holidays actually are and what we want them to be. Holidays, at their most basic, are communal rituals. Rituals cement community bonds -which is why people are often compelled to gather- but rituals are also sources of meaning and define us. Carrying out a holiday ritual, secular or religious, is a way of cementing value but if we do it unconsciously, “just because” does the ritual serve its function?
For example, if gathering for the holidays is supposed to be about cementing family bonds but you end up arguing the entire time with your Token Bigoted Uncle, is it a productive ritual? If you family uses the holidays to demean your sexuality or gender expression, is it a productive ritual? Does it reinforce your identity? Your values? Or does this just become a kind of cultural hazing after a while?
On the flip side, if you family has spectacular and affirming holiday rituals, is the quality preserved by carrying out the same actions in a wildly different context? For example, I always fly home for Christmas and my family always waits to go chop down a Christmas tree. I won’t be doing that this year but the more I think about it the less upset I am. Yes, not seeing my family hurts. Yes, I miss family traditions like making literally hundreds of pierogies to pass around the neighborhood and chzran that will burn your lungs (masks have been an important part of the Gorecki holidays and have prevented return hospital for generations before COVID.) But I also recognize that what those traditions are about is spending time with my family and carrying on historical traditions that cement our cultural belonging. Traveling home to my aging parents during a pandemic is completely counter to that. I would be putting my family at risk and potentially the lives of others if I became a patient zero in an interstate outbreak (I don’t want to be like this wedding, that killed 7 people.) There’s an appreciable, and easily avoidable, risk that I could seriously harm or kill my family by traveling this year. I’m not disrupting tradition right now. I’m honoring it within this new context.
We want to know your experiences and plans for this holiday season. How are you planning to handle the COVID holidays? How important is it to do “something” this holiday season? Why? Is it just inertia? Do we just want it even more because we can’t have it? Does the calculus change if you’re particularly religious and place that significance on some of the celebrations? Let us know your thoughts.