As the holiday season unfolds, COVID-19 has impacted everything from how our kids play and learn to how we show love to family and friends to how we work and spend our free time. This pandemic has brought challenges and frustrations, and for some, enduring grief.
As families continue to grapple with COVID-19, we can expect this year to look very different. Many traditions – like travel, big family dinners, holiday parties, and visits to Santa – won’t take place or will need to be reconfigured to keep everyone safe.
Through the challenges, we have learned what we value most. Will the pandemic teach us lessons about how we spend our holidays? Will we establish new traditions? Will we discover gifts we never anticipated in this difficult season of our lives?
Be a Light for Others
“So many of our holiday traditions take place outside of the home,” says Lucretia Anderson, a life and parenting coach and mother of two who uses the pronouns they/them. “We have to recontextualize the season a bit.”
For Anderson, that recontextualization involves learning about and being inspired by different holiday traditions. One of their favorites is the winter solstice, a celebration of light that brings people together in the darkest time of the year. The idea of light triumphing over darkness connects many different holiday traditions, both secular and religious, and feels particularly relevant during a time of disease, economic recession, and extreme political division.
Anderson, who is also an actor and drama teacher, worked for several years as assistant director for the Smithsonian Discovery Theatre’s annual performance of Seasons of Light. The show celebrates holiday traditions that incorporate light, including Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, Ramadan, Saint Lucia Day, and Las Posadas, and encourages audience members to find points of connection between different cultures.
“This is an ideal time to learn about and honor these different traditions,” Anderson says. “We can understand how they’re similar to our own and how they unify us.” For some families, learning about and incorporating traditions from different faiths and cultures could replace holiday traditions and activities we have to postpone this year.
The season provides several opportunities to experience light in the midst of literal and metaphorical darkness. During their family’s first holiday season in the area eight years ago, Anderson was thrilled to see all the high-wattage homes and businesses around Richmond. “People really revel in the lights,” they say. “I was dumbfounded by the sheer magnitude.”
Richmond’s dedication to spreading cheer has earned the city the title Tacky Lights Capital of the World. Anderson describes driving down Monument Avenue and feeling joyfully tearful at the community coming together in a positive way. “The community is brilliant about sharing that light,” Anderson says.
While many holiday traditions will be canceled or reimagined, we can still enjoy Richmond’s extravagant, colorful displays. Tacky light tour buses may be out of the question, but we can safely drive our families around town. Some neighborhoods – Walton Park in Midlothian or Monument Avenue for example – have so many decorated homes that families might also consider a walking tour.
Another light-centric outdoor destination is Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. Each year, the Dominion Energy GardenFest of Lights at the Lakeside garden dazzles families. Last year, visitors saw a million lights on display over a period of forty-three nights. Families can also safely take in festive light displays at Meadow Event Park’s drive-through Illuminate Light Show, from November 13 through January 3.
Although not associated with a particular holiday, the season brings another unique-to-Richmond celebration of life through light. Every November, the 1708 Gallery puts on InLight Richmond, a public exhibition of light-based contemporary art. Artists apply to be included in the annual themed show. The theme of this year’s event, November 12 through 16, is Safety and Accountability, inspired by conversations around racial justice, public health, the state of the economy, policing, the effects of COVID-19 on the community, and other factors artists want to explore. Visitors will be able to safely view the art exhibit at multiple sites around Richmond.
Finding Points of Connection
Thanksgiving is rooted in gratitude, and in the coming months there will be opportunities to shine light in the world through thankfulness and service to others. Both of these themes are important now when the economic downturn has left many struggling to meet their basic needs.
While we may miss out on traditions that bond us with extended family and the greater community, we can create new traditions that also help area nonprofits support the community.
With unemployment rates higher than we’ve seen since the Great Depression, families throughout the area are struggling. The region’s nonprofits have worked to meet these varying and increasing needs, including food, shelter, access to healthcare and childcare, and access to Internet services and devices to support virtual learning.
In Richmond, start with hub resources when seeking out ways to best serve the community’s needs. The Community Foundation lists a broad range of nonprofits serving the Richmond area on its website (connectva.org), and HandsOn Greater Richmond provides access to volunteer needs and opportunities (handsonrva.org).
Families who want to develop their own support plan for others this holiday season can check any local nonprofit’s website for wish-list items. After checking nonprofits’ lists, families can go shopping together for those items or conduct a neighborhood drive and deliver the donations.
Emmie Croxford, owner of the Richmond Mom Collective and mother of three, plans to put together toiletry bags within her family for those in need. “They will look different this year and will likely include masks and hand sanitizer,” Croxford says, “but putting those bags together is a low-contact, socially distanced activity we can do.”
Children might enjoy finding ways to bring joy to other families, perhaps through buying gifts for kids their age. Families might also consider commemorating loved ones who have died this past year by making monetary donations to a nonprofit in their honor.
Families can also get creative about bringing joy and light to their own neighborhoods. Croxford has a plan to adapt the “You’ve Been Boo-ed” tradition from Halloween to the Christmas season. She’s hoping to drop off bags of treats and goodies to neighbors and friends to spread some holiday cheer and excitement.
A brief front porch or sidewalk conversation can bring happiness to someone living alone, particularly to someone grieving the loss of a loved one. This year, you might offer to help an elderly neighbor set up outdoor decorations or rake leaves. Together, families can brainstorm other appropriate ways to bring joy to neighbors and friends.
Celebrating the Gifts We Have
When we pare down our holiday plans this year, we can create space to be mindful and celebrate the gifts we have, according to Anderson, who adds, “This is a good opportunity to reflect on the year and what we have been through.”
For this Thanksgiving season, Croxford has introduced a gratitude pumpkin at home. She purchased a white pumpkin, and each day, family members can write something they are thankful for on it. In the future, the decoration will be a reminder of 2020’s blessings and challenges.
Croxford also recommends a blessings jar. Family members write down what they’re thankful for and put the slips of paper in a jar. When someone is struggling, they can pull a message out of the jar and feel uplifted. “The blessings jar is the gift that keeps on giving,” Croxford says.
For many families, one of this year’s blessings is the opportunity to focus on the activities we can do instead of dwelling on the traditions that won’t take place. “When you can’t do all the things we’re used to doing, you have the opportunity to do fewer things more fully,” says Anderson. After so many days of virtual school and virtual meetings, they look forward to getting away from screens and back to the basics of enjoying quality time with their family and friends.
Croxford also appreciates that she and her family can be more intentional this year. “During the traditional holiday season, we’re typically always on the go,” says Croxford. “This year we can spend more time doing the things we want to do.”
Although it may feel like we will have to give up a lot to keep our families safe, there are still activities we can enjoy, and we may appreciate these new activities even more. Croxford says she is focusing on the idea of “instead of.” In other words, instead of doing the things we normally do, we can make new memories.
“Instead of caroling with a large number of families,” says Croxford, “we’ll carol with just our kids.” That new tradition might even be better in some ways. “When we’ve gone caroling with a large group, the kids have spent time together while all the adults talked to each other,” Croxford says. “When we go with our immediate family this year, we’ll have more of a chance to bond.”
Reimagined Holiday Traditions
Jason Marks, an award-winning actor and performer with a long resume, has produced shows and appeared on stages across the region with the Virginia Repertory Theatre, Swift Creek Mill Theatre, and others.
Although many Richmonders have seen Marks’ dynamic performances, they may not know that every year he reprises a well-known role: Santa Claus. He performed as Santa a decade ago at Macy’s in New York City and has been freelancing as Santa Jason for five years. Three years ago, Marks launched Santa Richmond (santarichmondva.com) to provide his services for hire for events like tree-lighting ceremonies, office parties, and in-home visits.
Typically by June, Santa Jason’s to-do list is full, but with so many parties and large-group gatherings canceled, Marks is exploring new territory. “With COVID-19, I’ve been trying to assess how I can bring magic to the community during a time when we all need more joy,” Marks said.
With an eye to CDC guidelines through the holiday season, Marks is pursuing cul-de-sac caroling. He and a cast of characters – including Mrs. Claus, GregNog, and Susie the Elf – will perform show tunes for families and neighborhoods. Families can sit outside and safely enjoy the show while eating cookies and drinking hot chocolate. “It will all be safe and at a distance,” Marks says. “It’s an exciting idea I’m hoping will be able to happen.”
Marks will also offer virtual home visits for families, where he talks to the kids and brings a little magic to the families. “Parents are going to need joy this year, too,” Marks says.
In an effort to bolster local small businesses and spread cheer, Marks is working on a Santa mailbox plan. Each week between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a mailbox to the North Pole will be housed at a selected business. At the end of that week, Marks will promote that business and post videos on social media in which Santa reads that week’s letters. His goal is to bring good will to families while also helping businesses that have been hit hard by the pandemic. “I want to bring magic to all the people of Richmond who really need it this year,” Marks says.
For many Richmonders (roughly 5,000 a year), the CarMax Tacky Light Run has become a holiday tradition. The evening race typically takes place in early December through the neighborhood of Walton Park in Midlothian, where tacky lights abound. “The CarMax Tacky Light Run combines two of Richmond’s favorite elements: tacky holiday lights and active living,” says Pete Woody, communications manager for Sports Backers, the event organizer. Participants are encouraged to wear their ugliest holiday sweater or tackiest costume, and cookies and entertainment line the course.
Race organizers are working hard to ensure this unique, community-building holiday tradition can take place safely in 2020. The event will be spread out over multiple locations and will take place over several nights. “We’re excited to offer this new event format for participants to take part in a festive and active way,” says Woody. “We’re committed to following public health guidelines while providing a fun tacky light experience and hope the spirit and sense of community remains.”
Another Richmond institution is finding a way to bring magic to the season despite the challenges brought on by COVID. The Dominion Energy Christmas Parade is scheduled for December 5 and will be a TV-only event. Families can watch from the comfort of their homes when CBS airs the new-fangled parade at ten o’clock in the morning. Groups who have performed in the past will film separately at an undisclosed location for one or two days and the parade will be edited together. The majority of the floats will be new this year. Footage from favorite balloons from past years will be interspersed with this year’s floats during the TV event.
While creating the parade exclusively for TV will be a challenge, it provides an opportunity to host performing groups that wouldn’t be able to parade on Broad Street, including SPARC and Virginia Rep, as well as Richmond Urban Dance, Crossroads Irish Dance, and the Greater Richmond Children’s Choir. “We’re grateful to CBS for using their TV magic to bring this to life this year,” says Tera Barry, communications co-chair of the parade.
Merry, Bright, and Safer for the Holidays
As we enter into a new season of the pandemic, you may be wondering how to keep your family and loved ones safe. Here are recommendations from Dr. Saritha Gomadam, infectious disease specialist at Bon Secours Monument Internal Medicine, about managing the holidays and mitigating the risks of COVID-19.
Is it okay to travel during the holidays?
General recommendations include avoiding travel if you are sick. If you are not sick and have to travel, wear a mask, wash your hands as often as possible or use hand sanitizer, avoid touching your eyes, nose, mouth, and face, and practice social distancing between other travelers. Another important tip would be to check the local rates of COVID-19 infections at the destination site before you travel to help you make a more informed decision. Some states may have travel restrictions in place.
How can families keep at-risk relatives safe?
Take care of your health and limit your exposure to COVID-19 to protect your loved ones who are at risk. We have learned that there is asymptomatic viral transmission with COVID-19. One of the most powerful ways to protect your relatives who are at higher risk for contracting the virus is to ensure that anyone coming in contact with the high-risk individual is healthy, without COVID-19 exposure. To help slow down transmission of the disease, wear a mask around your loved ones and limit intimate contact. Make sure that individuals at higher risk for COVID-19 obtain their routine vaccinations for Influenza and take care of their chronic conditions. During the holiday and into the new year, eat healthy and exercise regularly while maintaining safety measures to bolster your immune system in general.
What are the riskiest holiday activities in terms of exposure to COVID?
In general, the risk for contracting COVID-19 is higher indoors and in enclosed spaces and when in close contact with other people who may be contagious. The duration of contact time plays a role as well. Activities such as indoor parties and large gatherings, activities involving close contact, sharing of food and utensils, and eating from a buffet, would be higher risk. Activities that enable the practice of effective social distancing are less risky.
What else should families know about celebrating the holidays during a pandemic?
The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the world in many ways. As the holidays near, we need to be mindful of the ways in which we can help ourselves, our families, and our communities stay safer. When it comes to infectious disease, what one individual does can have a tremendous impact on others. Keeping yourself healthy can help your family and the community around you stay safe and healthy throughout the holiday season.
Photos: Karen Schwartzkopf, Jesse Peters, Sarah Hauser, Emmie, David Parrish, Jay Paul, Caroline Martin