Seeking a holiday refresh after a year when nothing was usual

Viking duo Leif and Lyra on October 31, 2020

I recently read that after nearly a year of pandemic life, many are finding a renewed sense of holiday spirit this year.

I am not one of them. Perhaps it’s because for the past 10 months home has also become office and school. It’s hard enough keeping everyone’s work stations in multiple rooms organized without adding seasonal stuff.

This fall whenever I pulled into our driveway, I thought, we really must get our Halloween decorations out. But we never did. Had our 10-year-old son, Leif, asked us to, I imagine we would have, but he didn’t.

On Halloween, we put our life-size plastic skeleton named X-ray on the porch and took two little Vikings trick-or-treating. And that, apparently, was sufficient.

Thanksgiving, unlike other years, was a small affair with no travel and far less cooking. It felt little different than Sunday dinner any week of the year.

And then the year-end biggies: Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Let’s dispatch with New Year’s Eve first. With no Pride Ball at the Akron Civic, we’re staying home. Whether we remain awake to toss out this doozy of a year or pay it no mind and go to bed early hasn’t been decided.

As for Christmas, I spent little on presents. The big boys each received four pairs of Bombas socks and a WKSU T-shirt. Leif and Lyra get gifts from relatives, so their haul was on par with most years, which, frankly, is too much.

The truth is, I’ve never spent much on Christmas as I believe less really is more. But the last-minute urge to buy additional gifts, which I admittedly often fall prey to, never arose this month. I didn’t want to charge headlong into stores. Besides, 2020 provided an adamant reminder that what we most need is our health and hearth.

Which begs the question, how much of what parents do for any holiday is motivated not by what kids expect but what our consumer-driven economy has led us to believe is necessary for their happiness? Is the stress to provide a perfect holiday simply the byproduct of a successful con?

Last year I read “How to Change Your Mind,” Michael Pollan’s book about the history of and current medical research on psychedelic drugs. Pollen necessarily includes a lot of information about our brains. For instance, in the first years of a human’s life each moment is open to endless possibilities. But as we grow, our brains begin to recognize patterns and thinking becomes streamlined.

This is important for efficiency. If every step we took, every bite of food we ate, every person we encountered had to be met as though it were for the first time, every time, well, as a species we’d have long ago died out.

But the price for our high-speed large brains is that we gloss through many parts of our lives like automatons. Luckily, there are methods, including meditation, to get the brain re-attuned with the moment.

One of the easiest ways to think again like a young child is to travel — the more foreign a place the better. Presumptions seldom succeed when visiting a place for the first time. Food, money, systems of transportation and, depending upon where you go, sometimes language, must be negotiated anew.

Like other parents, the holidays became overly routine for me long ago. I recall ABJ columnist Robin Swoboda once describing her adult daughter nagging her to put up more holiday decorations. Robin’s reply was basically, “Meh, I picked up tinsel for months every year when you were kids, leave me alone.”

Unlike Robin, I baked a second batch of babies in my 40s and have felt obligated to remain in the business of holiday memory making for over 25 years.

But what if, like travel for the brain, the blur of holiday traditions could be refreshed?

Last year, otherwise known as the “before times,” I floated the idea of taking a cruise this Christmas. I’ve never been on one and very well might not enjoy several days on a ship — I never travel with tour groups, preferring adventure over predictability — but I was willing to find out.

Everyone, including Leif, was not just open, but enthusiastic about a Christmas cruise.

Instead, given COVID, we again stayed put this year and sadly canceled a more recent tradition —Christmas Eve dinner with our friends Brian and David, whose table settings and meals should be featured in Food and Wine.

With life as we once knew it halted for so long, this year has felt like a big reset button. Things that were taken for granted, even those we may not have enjoyed or that had become rote, have been missed. Others not so much.

Next year, after widespread vaccination hopefully puts an end to the global pandemic, what will you do differently than you did before?

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, December 27, 2020.

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