The Longest Shortest Days

It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

River, Joni Mitchell

Is it horrible to love the saddest Christmas songs? River in particular kills me, and it has been in my head the last few days. I will tell you one of the best-kept secrets about this song. While I love the original, there is a very obscure and exceptional cover of it (hear me out) by — I kid you not — Robert Downey, Jr. My uncle found it years ago and put it on the family’s Christmas play list. It’s stunning and heartbreaking, and totally worth listening to if you want to weep into your spiked egg nog.

But the truth is, I love Christmas songs in general, not just the sad ones. I like the cheesy ones, the corny ones, the classics, and all (ok, most) of the rest. Give me your Band Aid, your Stevie Wonder, your Bruce Springsteen, your Darlene Love. But you can keep The Waitresses — sorry, and you can’t convince me otherwise. I wrote about my favorite Christmas songs a while back, when this blog was a baby — I suspect some of the YouTube links from that post are broken or redirected by now, but you get the idea. And then there is the debate over Mariah’s song. Do I love her music generally? Absolutely not. But the reality is that, years from now, my kids will remember the month of December as the period of time each year when I drove them to school with the car windows down and blasting All I Want for Christmas is You, much to their abject humiliation. Every day, that’s the December ritual. Well, it was the daily December ritual in The Before Times, when they attended school in-person every day.

As much of a cynic as I am in general, I am also a huge fan of the Christmas season, and I try to prolong it on both ends as much as possible. I want the real tree up just after Thanksgiving, and I want it to last until after New Year’s. I make sure the Sirius XM holiday stations are programmed into my favorites, as I ride around with the antlers and red nose on my car. I like to plan the menu for Christmas dinner and, at the expense of my sanity, host 20-30 people. I always let my kids eat the chocolate from their Advent calendars with breakfast every morning. I look forward so much to watching my daughter perform in The Nutcracker and taking the kids to Radio City to see The Rockettes and the Rockefeller Center tree. I love having my favorite people here for a cookie baking party of sheer Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer chaos every year. I torture myself combing through the online holiday card designs to pick the right one. And, more than anything, I can’t wait to be with my loud extended family and perform our 12 Days of Christmas ritual to cap off the festivities every year. It all exhausts me to no end, but I am so sad when it’s over and it’s a tough transition back to real life for me.

Needless to say, none of that is happening this year. And while it’s way less stressful not to have all of these holiday responsibilities, it turns out it’s also way less joyful and exciting. I know that the spirit of the season is not dependent on what you have, how many people you see, which cocktail parties you attend, or how many stand mixers you have simultaneously buzzing in your kitchen. I know it’s about being with those who mean the most, who will thankfully be right here with me. But, if I’m being honest, it’s also OK to mourn this shitty way to end this shitty year.

I’m told that Monday was the shortest day of the year, which seemed unbelievable at best since these short days are some of the longest — with five people testing the limits of each other’s sanity (and the strength of our wifi network) while all attending school and work online from this house as darkness falls before 5PM. My kids have been really very good overall throughout all of this, and I am firmly in the pep talk phase of the pandemic now, reminding them that we have to slog through the winter months ahead to start to see things hopefully, slowly resume with some normalcy. We will get there, I keep telling them. Then they see friends on Tik Tok and Face Time hanging out in large groups or going to sleepovers. They know every family has different rules. And they know, for us, why we are strict and what it means to us to follow the guidelines. But man, it’s exhausting to be the bad guy over and over in an age of social media and constant online documentation of everyfuckingthing their peers are doing.

Can we just, for a minute, look at where we are? I know we are all sort of numb and used to the new normal in many respects, but sometimes I think about how batshit crazy it is that we’re living in some dystopian novel or really bad made for TV movie with a global pandemic. Do you remember how patently insane it seemed when Italy first said they were closing down their country in March?

Shortly afterwards, when the stay at home order began here, we received a note from my youngest child’s school principal, where she encouraged all of us to collect toilet paper cardboard rolls during the few weeks we’d all be out of school — so then the kids could bring them into school when they returned, use them for projects, and count them up as a fun way to quantify the time spent at home. The reality is that we never got to set foot in that school again, and my son graduated Kindergarten from the drive-through car line in June. Afterwards, I went home and finally threw away the pile of toilet paper cardboard rolls that I had continued to collect for months, out of habit and long past their intended usefulness. Time was already bent, and that was six months ago.

Think of all the things, at this time last year — at Christmas 2019 — none of us could possibly have believed were in store.

What if I had told you at this time last year that, in a few months’ time, you’d have a preferred face mask for when you leave the house, and maybe even a bin near the front door where each family member keeps their clean masks? Would you have believed me if I told you that you’d get used to how your glasses fogged up with a mask, and that kids would know enough to roll their eyes at people who don’t properly cover their nose with the mask? Would you have laughed if I told you that I’d soon discover where to shop online for protective gear specifically made for tuba players — like bell covers and masks with mouth openings for playing instruments? Could you have imagined adding in daily temperature checks and completing COVID forms to attend school or sports? Had you ever heard of a drive-by birthday celebration for a child?

It was all unimaginable. And now it’s so normal.

And what if I had told you at this time last year that, by the time 2020 ended, 300,000 Americans would be dead from this virus — and that, worse still, some people would somehow find that number to be an acceptable threshold so they can prioritize their personal freedoms over a public health emergency? I’m not sure about you, but I will never get used to scrolling through social media and encountering people in my community — or even in my extended family — diminishing this situation, talking about how those who are ready should get back out there and live their lives while the rest of us follow the guidance. Or seeing these people hiding behind dubious conspiracy-laden posts by suggesting it’s “something to think about” to suit their choices.

I honestly don’t know if there could have been something more unimaginable than this type of reaction.

Back to Christmas, though. <Channels spiked egg nog essence to find calm and to reset.>

This was supposed to be one of the Christmas years when everyone was coming home. My sister in England was going to be here with her husband and my little niece, but you can imagine how that’s looking for any prospect of us seeing each other remotely soon. My dad, who I haven’t seen in two years, was going to be here this Christmas too. Not happening. My cousin just had a baby and we were going to try to see her too. Nope. These are just a few of the many stories of the sidelined get togethers and dashed traditions everywhere that just cannot be.

My daughter has the Christmas gene like me. She willingly belts out the Christmas songs with me in our kitchen and in the car and she has had a running countdown since sometime in late November. I bought a bunch of baking supplies, we have been making our favorite Christmas cookies, while trying out some new recipes. It’s great to do this just with her, especially now that she can clean up the baking aftermath, but we both talk about how we miss the Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer Chaos of the annual cookie party with 20+ people mixing dough and eating the candy baking supplies while waiting for a free oven spot. She didn’t get to do The Nutcracker this year and wonders if she missed her only chance to perform the Chinese Tea dance for her age group.  We watched the Rockettes special on TV and talked about how much the Dance of the Wooden Soldiers defies gravity, but it’s better in person at Radio City. All of these things are small as isolated differences, but together they feel like a collective big shift on top of a nine months of ongoing shifts.

The reality is that I have always felt a deep, self-imposed sense of obligation as a parent to make this season feel special for my kids. This year, I don’t know if I’m succeeding. Will Christmas Day just feel like another Blursday here at home, but with nicer clothes, fancier place settings, and showers for all? Maybe we’ll put the family Zoom up on the big screen for the occasion, and surely we’ll go for yet another walk around the neighborhood as we do most days. It’s just one year, I tell myself and them. It’s fine. The Christmas songs will be playing loudly, and that will feel like the most normal part of the holiday here.

So, for those of you about to celebrate the strangest Christmas ever, after the most unimaginable year ever, I see you. For those staying home and having a very small and sideways celebration, thank you. Merry Christmas to you and yours, and play the Mariah song if you need a little something extra with that spiked egg nog. Trust me.


2020 tree

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