Last year’s lockdown Christmas was lonely, but it taught me how to have a better holiday

Parenting

By Halloween this year, both sets of grandparents were already asking, “So, what’s the plan for Christmas?”

I felt all earnest eyes on me as I hosted our pre-trick-or-treating pizza party. Grandparents. Children. My sister’s family. Perhaps even Santa himself was watching. I’m certain that our Elf on the Shelf was listening from his off-season home in the locked basement closet where I store the cleaning products.

“Oh! Well! I’m sure we’ll all get together,” I said. And I meant it. Especially after last year’s lonely lockdown Christmas, where gatherings were restricted to our immediate household, and travel outside each health region was discouraged. But this year, as we planned Christmas, we were full of hope: everyone but the kids are now vaccinated, no one had heard of Omicron yet, and we were feeling ready to gather.

But still, a part of me was thinking, Fa-la-la-la-FML.

This year, the official recommendations will vary by region, but they mostly leave it up to individual families to decide what they’re comfortable with. Where we live, we’re allowed to gather with a maximum of 10 people. If you’re vaccinated, it’s much safer. Both my kids, ages five and 22 months, obviously won’t be fully vaccinated in time, but technically, as long as no one is sick with COVID symptoms, we can still travel, get dressed up for small holiday parties, take our kids to parades, sprint through Costco to get our hands on those coveted Christmas Squishmallows, exchange gifts in person, and sit down for a turkey dinner with loved ones. 

Christmas is back! Just like we all wanted! So, why does it sound kind of ho-ho-horrible? 

Maybe it’s because I’m so exhausted from nearly two years of pandemic parenting that the thought of a busy, bustling holiday season sounds about as tempting as a rigorous Covid swab. Some recent studies noting that many Canadians are experiencing “reopening anxiety” would bear that out. Isolation isn’t healthy, experts say, but it’s also what we’re used to now. And jumping back into life as we knew it before the pandemic can be overwhelming. 

But, maybe, just maybe, it’s also possible that 2020’s sad lockdown Christmas was actually a nice change of pace. That annual tradition of holiday stress doesn’t have to be so ingrained in our experience.

Now, I need you to understand that I’m anything but a grinch. To walk past my home is to realize just how enthusiastic we get for the holidays each year. Our lawn currently boasts three Christmas inflatables and a light-up reindeer, and our house is aglow with about 1,600 multi-coloured bulbs, two psychedelic floodlights, and a projector. Clark Griswold would weep.

Inside, the Christmas tree has been up since mid-November, I’ve replaced everyone’s bedding with Christmas blankets, my closet is already overflowing with hidden presents, and I have matching candy-cane family pajamas ready to go.

This time last year, when it became clear that Christmas as we’d always known it was cancelled, I cried. COVID cases were on the rise, no one was vaccinated yet, and many regions around the country were in lockdown. Stores in some areas were limited to curb-side pickup, indoor gatherings were banned, and parades and Christmas markets were cancelled. People were encouraged to celebrate virtually instead. 

I felt gutted thinking about my dad, all alone for Christmas with the takeout dinner my sister and I ordered for him. I hated knowing that my mom wouldn’t get to see the kids tear into their stockings, her husband wouldn’t get to pull the kids in their sleds, my mother-in-law wouldn’t get to read them any Christmas Eve stories, and that my father-in-law, four provinces away, would go another holiday without meeting his new grandchild.

On Christmas morning, my heart ached watching my youngest son experience his first Christmas without anyone cooing over him except us. And I felt cheated that we had finally moved into a house big enough to receive multiple overnight guests, yet our doors were shut to visitors.

But as my husband, two boys and I hunkered down and obeyed public health orders, I felt something else: relaxed. 

There were no parades or events to drive to. I bought all my presents online to avoid crowds. We slept in our own beds on Christmas Eve, and stayed in our pajamas all morning—no fussy outfits, scratchy sweaters, or calculating how to best divide our time between the multiple sets of grandparents and extended family we wanted to share the holidays with. I definitely don’t miss driving from Ottawa to Kingston to Picton to Toronto and back again for separate celebrations in the span of a week. 

Photo of kids running around on Christmas Day in their pajamas while facetiming with grandparents

Photo: Courtesy of Natalie Stechyson

Instead of stressing over cooking a fancy brunch (that my kids wouldn’t eat, anyway), I sipped a coffee and watched them actually get to play with their toys and video chat with their grandparents. Instead of a tightly scheduled day followed by turkey that—despite our best efforts every year—always took an hour or two longer to cook than planned, we just hung out, and the children had mac and cheese for dinner (and were thrilled about it). 

It was calm. It was different. It was nice.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not going to force another lockdown Christmas on my family this year. Not only would I be disowned, but it’s not actually what I want. Not really. My sister and I already decided to co-host—so we aren’t going to travel around to multiple homes. I’m just questioning whether the flurry of traditions that always seemed so important are actually all that enjoyable, especially when the schedule is jam-packed. (We went to a parade last weekend, for instance, and my sound-sensitive son spent most of it grimacing, with his hands clasped over his ears.) I don’t need the big events, the malls, the big meals, and the parties.

Maybe this year, we’ll stay in our pajamas all day, play in the snow, and if my kids would rather eat Christmas hot dogs, that’s just fine.

There will also be cookies, and dancing, and no expectations. I bet the grandparents will love it, actually. 

Because unlike last year, as long as everyone’s healthy, and the restrictions don’t change, we’ll be together. And that part sounds Fa-la-la-la-lovely.

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