This past year has been a hard one. Though we are close to the renewed hopes of a new year, we still face what could be the hardest days of 2020 for some.
No matter what you are celebrating this season — Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, Festivus – most plans have likely been altered. Some people have been lucky to experience only minor inconveniences or shifts, while others are facing a total breakdown of holiday celebrations and family traditions.
My heart goes out to people who are struggling with this change. I was once just like you.
When I was 12 years old, my oldest brother enlisted in the Navy and left for basic training near Chicago just before Thanksgiving. Since the base was only a five-hour drive from home, our family was able to participate in a Christmas Adopt-a-Sailor program to spend the day with him.
Looking back, I had a lot of pre-teen anxiety about the effects this had on our holiday celebration and family traditions. It was the first time we ever changed our family routine, and I was convinced the changes were going to ruin Christmas. We had to shorten our visits with extended family on Christmas Eve so we could get a few hours of sleep before our 3 a.m. departure. We would not be opening presents around the tree on Christmas morning. It all just felt wrong.
Our Christmas in downtown Chicago ended up being a great adventure. The city was like a ghost town. The only restaurant open was a two-story McDonald’s, and my siblings and I were so proud to rack up a $30 total, which makes me laugh now as it would be a bargain for a family of six today. We visited an equally deserted Navy Pier where our entertainment became exploring a water gunboat and chatting with the on-duty firefighters staffing it. We ended the day watching the latest James Bond movie at the theater since it was the only thing we could find open.
This odd and presumably ruined holiday ended up being one of our most memorable Christmases. The highlights of the day were not presents, which I cannot even remember if we exchanged, or cool experiences. The greatness of the day came from the spoiled plans, laughter and shared experience of making memories together.
We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the last Christmas we spent together as a family. Ten months later, my middle bother died in a car accident; my oldest brother was away from home for six years in the Navy; and my sister and I became adults with our own careers and families to work around for the holidays.
I will not pretend that my family’s Chicago Christmas was magical, tradition worthy or even worth repeating. However, I am grateful for the time it gave us together and the way it mentally prepared me for the hard lesson of life’s changes.
If you are anxious about how the holidays will turn out for your family and friends, I can share from experience that a break from tradition isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Even if you are sad, mad or disappointed about the circumstances, you can still make memories and celebrate with loved ones. It will give you something to talk about in future years when you are enjoying your holiday celebrations and family traditions.