The Ghost of Christmas 2020

Christmas came early this year, as did all our pandemic holidays.

Our neighborhood began stringing lights and hanging wreaths in late October, and the decorations have been epic — inflatable snowmen and Santa’s, sleighs and reindeer and life-size nativity scenes. There’s even a unicorn on one rooftop, because, well, it’s been a unicorn kind of year.

It seems that in our quest to divert and deflect during this hardest of years, we’re not only pointing to shiny objects, we’re also hanging them from the rafters and adding extra wattage.

It struck me first in September, when the traditional post-Labor Day return to school was anything but traditional. Social media posts were full of first-day photos. Children posed on front porches, decked out in spiffy new outfits, holding the obligatory first day/new grade signs.

This is good, I thought, a hopeful sign of moving forward, a new season and new start. And then I noticed their bare feet and was yanked back to reality. Because once the Kodak moment was captured, once that optimistic stab at normalcy has passed, they would head back into the house for online learning. No shoes required.

And I was torn in halves and thirds and weepy pieces about it all. Sad that children were unable to go to school on a bus, sit at a desk, make friends and meet teachers unmasked … proud of us all for adapting and grappling with what we must … and then again, saddened at the futile stab at routine and de riguer.

Brave faces and bare feet were followed by a decked-out Halloween. Because we are a nation of idealists who grasp and claw at normalcy. We are creatures of habit, adhering to holiday ritual and seasonal routine. A pandemic may lurk and menace, but by golly, Great Pumpkin — we’ll throw cobweb gauze over the hedge and carry on, welcoming friendly goblins — and ignoring those we can’t see.

Ditto Thanksgiving. There may have been fewer place settings at the table, but there was plenty of autumnal swag — and Disney princesses waving to empty streets as they rode rosy floats through Manhattan. The show — and the Macy’s parade — must go on.

As a nation, we are known for our unflagging optimism. It is part and parcel of American ‘exceptionalism’ … an admirable trait that has seen us through hard times and heavy lifting before. It is uniquely ours — a chest-thumping point of pride and never-say-die national anthem. We believe — in goodness and God, in Santa Claus and Hallmark Channel miracles, in the power of positivity and bouncy house resilience. Europeans may turn up their cheese-sniffing noses at us, but by golly and by jolly, we are glass-half-full happy.

Most of the time, I love that about us. I love the spirit and spunk, the ability to find silver linings — that we turn into tinsel and toss upon the tree. This year, not so much.

I’m just not buying it. The Greek masks of comedy and tragedy are reverse images of one another, and in this year of masks and loss and separation, I find the exaggerated smile as disturbing as the grimace of sorrow.

Of course we should stay strong, and resist getting sucked down the dark holes of despair. Celebrate the milestones and markers of life. Find good amid the wreckage.

What I worry about is optimism that blinds us to reality and risk. The predicted post-Thanksgiving COVID surge (following post-Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day surges) is upon us, with 3,000 of our own dying daily. Hospitals and healthcare workers are overwhelmed. To pretend that all is fine and festive is foolish — and as ghoulish as those freaky Greek masks.

I’m no doctor, but it seems that trading one extreme for another isn’t the healthiest approach to coping through crisis. At some point, the veneer cracks, parade balloons deflate and quarantines break. Positivity is one thing; oblivion quite another. No matter how much lipstick you put on this pig of a year, you still can’t kiss your grandkids. And you probably shouldn’t gather a large clan of friends and family for a Christmas Eve party, either.

In 1939, the British government pasted the now famous ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ posters all over the country, to maintain morale during World War II air raids. The message was one of sobriety, restraint and resolve, as you’d expect from the Brits. Contrast that with President George W. Bush, two weeks after 9/11, urging Americans to shop and “Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” Economists may understand what he was thinking. I surely don’t. At some point, you have to put the brakes on and get off the wild ride.

I get it: Carrying on helps us cope. It is part nostalgia and part projection, a longing for how things used to be, and hope for the future. We’re in a weird place this year, betwixt the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be. The 2020 holiday season may look glossy and bright, thanks to an abundance of LED lights, carols and cookies. But pull back the wrapping paper and we’re still in a pandemic. The greatest gift, this year and always, is caring for one another. And that means opting for pragmatism over frivolity, precaution over excess and celebrating within the bounds of good sense for this Ebenezer Scrooge of an epidemic year.

We’ll get through this, but we have to work through it — not tree-skirt around it. So, if decorating the outside of your home keeps you inside, well done! Keep Calm and Merry On!

And remember these immortal words of Scrooge himself: “I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the past, the present and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me.”

Writer who believes in the power of language to change minds, change moods and change the world.

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