For most of us, December 1 is the starting line for the mad dash through the Christmas season toward the finish line that is Christmas Day. For some people, that race starts even earlier. But, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, that race might be put on hold for now. Or, at least it will take a different course.
Family celebrations may be held on Zoom. Presents may be shipped rather than personally delivered. Midnight Mass may be celebrated in front of a computer screen rather than gathered in your parish church.
Yes, Christmas might be a little bit different this year, but that doesn’t mean we have to lose the spirit or meaning of the season. Luckily, the reason we celebrate is a timeless story that will help carry us through any obstacles we may face.
If we think about it, the very first Christmas took place in the midst of chaos. Mary, a young girl, found herself with child. Joseph, her fiancé, was faced with the reality and life-changing implications of the situation. They had to leave their home and travel miles, only to be turned away when trying to find shelter. Eventually, they welcomed their son in a manger filled with hay and animals.
If that doesn’t sound unsettling, I don’t know what does. But, despite all that, it ended up being a great blessing for us.
Perhaps, then, we should look upon the challenges of this year as an opportunity to once again embrace the spirit and joy of Christ’s birth. And while such a celebration may not look as it has for us in recent years, there are things we can do to embrace the spirit of the Advent and Christmas season. Here are five suggestions for celebrating this glorious time in the midst of COVID-19.
1) Think Small
According to Amazon, the company’s sales increased 40 percent to $88.9 billion in the second quarter of this year, compared with $63.4 billion in the second quarter of 2019. While that’s good news for them, it has not been the story for the small businesses that were drastically affected by the shutdown. Many have had to close their doors. Others are hanging on in hopes that things will begin to look up. And that’s where we can come in to help.
It’s very convenient to hop on to the Amazon website or the site of another large retailer to buy Christmas gifts. We know that they’ll be on our doorstep within a day or two, and then we can cross that off our list. But why not seek out something unique and a little less mass-produced and, in the process, help a smaller business? There are many small vendors and companies that create a wide range of one-of-a-kind gifts that you can often personalize for the recipient, such as handmade rosaries or crosses.
On a broader scale, maybe we should also start to think small in other ways too. Perhaps this is a good time to rethink whether we really need all the material items that we put on our lists and buy for others. Do we really need that new outfit and shoes or that bigger TV? Will it make our lives infinitely better if we get that new phone?
This would be a good time to go through the things you have and think about what you really need and what might benefit someone else more. Removing the weight of material goods can be a very freeing experience.
2) Shop with a Purpose
If there is one thing this past year has made clear, it is the reality that, at any given moment, we may need help from other people through no fault or action of our own. If you have been able to weather this storm mostly unscathed, congratulations. Unfortunately, many others have not. Knowing that, we might want to offer help to those who may not have fared so well or who find themselves in an unfavorable or difficult life situation.
Perhaps instead of buying a friend or family member a new sweater or book, donate that money to an organization that will make a difference in the world. There are many different ones that provide opportunities to help underprivileged families throughout the world with the most basic of needs, such as water and clothing. (See sidebar on page 40 for some suggestions.)
For instance, through Catholic Relief Services (CRS) you can donate money and sponsor things such as a child’s education, a health exam, or a community watering station. The gift catalog on the CRS website (CRS.org) also offers a wide range of ideas.
Another organization working to help those in need is Catholic Charities. It helps families with affordable housing, provides disaster relief, and offers other means of assistance to those in need. According to a press release from the orga-nization this past August, the agency “distributed nearly $400 million in emergency COVID-19 assistance to people across the United States and the US Territories during the past four months. Emergency help consists primarily of food, rental assistance, personal protective equipment, baby supplies, and emergency quarantine housing.”
There are also many local organizations in your area, including your own parish, that probably need some type of assistance, whether it be monetary or for things like clothes and household items.
3) Share the Love
Loneliness has skyrocketed during the long months of isolation brought on by the pandemic. Nursing homes, hospitals, and even our own homes at times have been on lockdown in order to keep ourselves and others from getting sick.
I was unable to visit my dad for months at his nursing home prior to him passing away last summer. I know the isolation took a toll on him—and my sisters and me. During that time, phone calls and video chats facilitated by the workers helped soothe the loneliness and sadness just a little bit.
Unfortunately, because of the ebb and flow of the disease, for many that loneliness has not faded despite the small steps we have taken to try to get back to some semblance of normal. Considering that, the technology that we both love and sometimes loathe was built for just this type of situation. It has become a lifeline to those we would otherwise be separated from.
But technology is not the answer to everything. Many people are not blessed to be able to have such technology or the capability to use it. Because of that, we should remember that there is nothing quite like receiving a handwritten letter or card.
Have your kids or grandkids make cards for residents at a local nursing home or hospital. You might also ask your parish office if there are members of the parish whom you or your kids could reach out to. That connection may make a world of difference to someone feeling alone and isolated—especially at this time of year.
Or if, like me, you’ve been too busy in recent years to send out Christmas cards, consider sending them out this year. Include a short personal note or update on yourself or your family. It would probably be welcomed considering how difficult it’s been to get together with people this year.
4) Have Fun
These days, it seems as if my e-mail in-box is filled with articles on how to deal with or relieve the stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. One suggestion I’ve seen more than a few times is to stop and take time to do something you enjoy in order to take your mind off the uncertainty and bad news we seem to be surrounded by on an almost daily basis.
I must confess that since most of my kids’ activities have been canceled or curtailed because of COVID-19, I am enjoying the extra time our family has to spend together. This year, maybe we’ll finally have time to do all the things we always intend to do each year, such as driving to look at lights, decorating the house, Christmas caroling, or watching Christmas movies together.
Maybe this year we’ll actually have time to all sit together for dinner and light the candles of our Advent wreath on a more regular basis—something I’m embarrassed to say we have not done consistently since the kids were little.
Whatever it is your family decides to do, have fun doing it and rejoice in the blessing of time spent together.
5) Regain Your Focus
Finally, and most importantly, let’s take advantage of this time to refocus on the true meaning of the season—Christ’s birth. Advent and Christmas are not about the trees, gifts, decorations, or cookies. They never have been. This year, let’s make an effort to remember that.
These are unprecedented times. This Christmas season will be like one we’ve never seen before and hopefully will not see again in our lifetimes. Our lives, traditions, and sense of normalcy have been thrown into disarray. In spite of that, though, on Christmas Day we will still celebrate the birth of Christ.
Every year when I watch the classic Christmas special How the Grinch Stole Christmas, based on the Dr. Seuss book, I am struck by one particular line in the show. After trying to stop Christmas from coming, the Grinch is shocked to see the Whos down in Whoville still celebrating. The sight makes him wonder: “‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas . . . perhaps . . . means a little bit more.’”
Every year, I tell myself that I’m going to take those words to heart. Yet every year I get sucked back into the whirlwind that has become the Christmas season. Maybe this year—with all its twists and turns and trials—will force me to stop and remember that Christmas . . . perhaps . . . means a little bit more.
A Helping Hand
If you and your family are looking to help others in need this holiday season, here are some organizations you might consider.
As the official international Catholic relief and development agency of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, CRS carries out the commitment of the bishops to assist the poor and vulnerable overseas.
Catholic Charities works to provide service to people in need, to advocate for justice in social structures, and to call the entire Church and other people of goodwill to do the same.
The mission of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is to advance cures, and means of prevention, for pediatric catastrophic diseases through research and treatment. Consistent with the vision of the hospital’s founder, Danny Thomas, no child is denied treatment based on race, religion, or a family’s ability to pay.
The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is the domestic anti-poverty program of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
A branch of Heifer International, Heifer USA helps small-scale farmers deliver fresh, nutritious food to reliable markets by providing them with training, education, and resources needed to sell their products for a fair price.
Susan Hines-Brigger is an executive editor of this magazine and has written its Faith and Family column for almost 20 years.