With Thanksgiving already over in Canada and the United States, and with Hannukah, Christmas and other celebrations coming in just a few weeks, we are firmly into the holiday season. Like the rest of this year, it promises to be a season unlike any other we have experienced before. During a time of year that is usually filled with long-held traditions, Holiday Season 2020: The Pandemic Edition is bound to present us with challenges and losses. Some of our traditions may need creative altering, while others may stand as they always have. Both ways can offer us that familiar balm we’ve long known and need this year more than ever.

One of my family’s most treasured Hannukah traditions is the annual visit to my sons’ classrooms to serve homemade latkes with applesauce, pass out dreidels, and tell a Hannukah story. This tradition has become a wonderful way for me and my husband to forge warm connections with our sons’ classmates, teachers, and school administrators. (We always make sure to drop off a plate of latkes in the main office.) The unmistakable latke smell wafts through the hallways while we warm the potato pancakes in the school kitchen. Teachers always wander in (nothing like the smell of latkes to draw people near!) with exclamations of “I always know it’s Hannukah when I see you two in the hallways with your platters!” or “My grandmother used to make these,” and “Can I have your recipe?” Of course, no one leaves the kitchen without a latke in hand.

While this will be the first Hannukah in eleven years that we won’t be delivering latkes to school, the warm memories of this beloved ritual stay with us as we consider doing some “drive-by latke drops” to teachers and classmates. We can’t wait to continue the tradition next year, when it will be even more appreciated because of its absence this year.

Neufeld Institute Faculty member Elana Strobinsky, who lives in Israel, will also be missing her usual Hannukah traditions this year. She writes:

This year we’ll be preparing for Hannukah the way we usually do, but for the first time that I can remember, I don’t feel the usual excitement. Rather I have a sense of apprehension because I know that this year will be different. We will still be able to have so many of our beloved traditions, such as lighting the menorah every evening together with our children, singing songs, having family dinners, playing games, making latkes, and frying doughnuts (and my kids will joke, as always, at my attempts to make “healthier doughnuts”). But I’m also filled with sadness because I know that so much will be missing. For instance, we won’t be having our annual family gathering at my parents’ house, with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. And we’ll have to postpone our usual community events and fun outings with our “friends-like-family.”

During the ins and outs of daily life, holidays provide a time of rest and togetherness. Each holiday has its unique traditions, which provide us and our children with a sense of familiarity, that awaken warm memories and feel like a “homecoming” no matter where we are. But this year, due to Covid-19, some of our traditions will be missing, and some we’ll have to recreate in order to adapt to the very odd times we live in.

There is much to be thankful for and happy about, yet at the same time, there is also so much missing. I know we’ll have a happy holiday. We’ll enjoy the time we spend together with our children, we’ll continue the traditions that we can, under the circumstances, and I also know that we’ll find a way to recreate the traditions that can’t be celebrated, in a way that will still allow us to feel connected to the people we love.

But before all of that, there is sadness to be felt for what will be missing, for the loneliness and suffering of other people around us near and far, and for the uncertainty of when this will all be over. This year will be different but, hopefully, at the other side of our sadness we’ll be able to find rest and joy in both the familiar and the reconfigured traditions and through our connections to the ones we love.

Some beloved holiday traditions, notably those that connect us not in physical space but through the heart, can continue as usual this year. Neufeld Institute facilitator Sara Easterly writes about her family’s favourite Christmas ritual:

The first Christmas tradition I embraced as a new mom came straight from my youth: baking and decorating sugar cookies. What a delight it was to have my mom with me the first time we did this with my one-year-old daughter and her newborn sister. Together we made a giant mess of flour and frosting while listening to Teresa Brewer sing “Christmas Cookies and Holiday Hearts” and cutting dough into shapes of snow-people, stars, and Santa. We had great fun and I basked in the meaningfulness of carrying on this ritual in a multigenerational way.

Over the years, while grieving my mom’s death, I’ve come to learn that the lasting magic of making Christmas cookies came from her leadership rolling out the dough for me, her artistry as she painted her cookies and shared her techniques, her laughter from pure enjoyment of family time, her willingness to embrace mistakes when the snowman’s scarf broke off, and the permission she gave me to roll up my sleeves and get messy. This was her Christmas spirit on display. This was the “holiday hearts” part of the cookie song we sang about.

With my own family, it’s no surprise that baking and decorating Christmas cookies is the pinnacle tradition that has stuck with us. It’s only now, as an adult, that I fully appreciate why. Mirroring my mom’s Christmas spirit is the most important part of this ritual for me, and the one I hope my children remember most when they look back on our Christmas sugar cookie baking.

More than any other time in the recent past, this year has called on us to find our resilience–that place where we can find workarounds, new paths and fresh solutions–and this Covid holiday time is no different. Neufeld Faculty member Tamara Strijack writes about how she is adapting her favourite holiday tradition to this year’s constraints:

New Year’s Eve collaging is a fairly new tradition that began with my own desire to slow down and think about the past year and my hopes for the year ahead.

That particular year I had re-discovered collage and I had compiled the necessary ingredients – old magazines, cardboard, scissors, and glue sticks. I put out the invitation, that if anyone wanted to join me, they were welcome to. No obligation. And so I started cutting.

Soon magazines were strewn on the kitchen table, spilling out to the floor. My two adolescent daughters were in, as were my sister and her five-year-old son, my 17-year-old nephew, and his girlfriend. We chatted, found words for each other, laughed, and ate, and cut and laughed … as we got closer to midnight.

The stage had been set and I was surprised at the engagement (my oldest kept going until 3 am!). What impressed me was how this made room for both an incredible shared experience, while at the same time allowing the opportunity for personal expression and processing. The five-year-old simply collected pictures he liked and glued them together, while the older ones found words and images that tapped into desires and dreams difficult to give voice to in any other way.

And so a New Year’s Eve tradition was born that day – making room for the reflections from the year before and yearnings for the year ahead. This year there is more to process than ever before and our new family tradition will reflect that: we are going to need more supplies (there are a lot of feelings that need to come out in collage this year!), we are going to need the help of Zoom to join our kitchen tables, and we are going to need some kleenex for the tears that are likely to come.

From all of us at the Neufeld Institute, we wish you a feeling-full holiday season and a healthy New Year!

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