When I was 19 and at university, 3000 kilometres from where my family lived, I planned to not go home for Christmas. I was living on student loans and money was tight. My mother quietly listened to my logic, then sent me a plane ticket.
Of course, I had a wonderful time. But I remember being resentful of her not respecting my adult (in my mind) wish to have the experience of being away from family at Christmas.
Fast forward almost a decade and I finally got my wish. My English husband and I were in Britain, considering moving there. The in-laws who were so lovely when they visited us in Canada reverted to home mode. The house was cold, the drinks infrequent, the gathering just them and us, and I can still feel my indignation when my then mother-in-law turned to her son and asked, “Hamish, would Kathryn like some more potatoes?”
I’m sitting right here, ma’am.
After our Christmas “celebration” I spent hours on the phone. It was the days of undersea cables and “all circuits are busy” so everyone else in the house was asleep by the time I got through to my sister’s house, where the family was gathering. As soon as I heard the first familiar voice I started crying, and am told I cried through the entire call.
The next time I spent a Christmas away from my sisters, another decade later, it was different. I had a family of my own, with a different Canadian husband and our child. We got together with another family in the same situation in our northern town, cooking traditional foods, playing a gift exchange game, and realizing, late in the evening and to our surprise, that WE were the adults at the gathering.
Two years ago, for the first time in three decades, my husband was not part of the celebration. I hosted, a deliberate and extravagant Christmas, my last in my house, my last as the host. It helped me say goodbye to the traditions I would not continue, and to realize what was the essence of the holiday for me.
Last year, I took my children to Hawaii. We still had stockings— I snuck theirs into my luggage, and they surprised me with one. There was no big dinner or presents, but we appreciated the core of the holiday— spending time with those we love.
This year, as for so many other people, my time with extended family was on Zoom, and I had a WhatsApp video chat with my children. Not a substitute for hugs, but we still connected.
And my isolated Christmas has been surprisingly pleasant. There has been no stress. I made traditional Finnish foods for the Eve, not because I felt I should but because I wanted to. A few cards to family were sent weeks ago and asides from a small gift for Scott, there was no shopping. I could do my same donations online, whether at home or so far away. Christmas morning, we went surfing before breakfast. I exchanged greetings with many, many friends all over the world during the day, through posts and messages.
Like so many other things, Christmas has been pared down to its essence by Covid: connection, love, and a relaxed sense of appreciation for what is important.
And perhaps that is not a bad thing.