Celebrating the holidays during COVID: A little heartbreak and sacrifice


By Cris Pearlstein

Living far away from family during a pandemic over the holiday season is hardest. When my husband and I decided to pick up and move across the country five years ago, we never imagined a reality where a year would go by without seeing the people we love. But to be fair, we also never imagined a reality where getting on a plane was a health risk, where we had to wear masks to go outside, and where hugging was taboo.

For a while the long-distance relationship we had with our family and friends worked. It involved lots of phone calls and FaceTimes, a constant stream of snail mail and email, and of course plenty of air travel. Whether we were flying home or someone was coming to visit us, there was always an in-person encounter on the calendar to look forward to — and we always made sure to make it home for the important milestones, occasions, and holidays. In fact, for the first few years it almost felt like we had never left. Thanksgiving we went home, and Christmas too, except when I was in my third trimester. Easter they came to us, along with Fourth of July and February break. I flew home for my sister’s 30th birthday, and showed up to my cousin’s Sweet 16 soiree. A friend’s engagement party was purposely planned around whether we would be in town, and one year we even made it home for Mother’s Day. We didn’t miss a thing.

Fast forward to 2020 and it’s been almost a year that we haven’t seen any family or friends in the flesh. This is a tough pill to swallow, not only because we’ve missed out on so much, but because now we have a 2.5-year-old daughter. As any parent knows, a year is a very long time in a child’s life — they grow so fast and can change drastically in as little as a week. Turning a cute photo into a phone case, calendar, or framed momento was always a go-to grandparent gift for me, but I realized recently that’s no longer an option. She was a baby the last time she saw her grandparents, and the most recent photos I have with any of them feature grown-ups that look relatively the same, but a kid who looks completely different. A year ago she was a wobbly, babbling, mess of an almost-toddler who was just starting to talk and find her voice. She sat buckled into a highchair for meals, and wore a bib while she ate. She sat in her stroller anytime we left the house because she couldn’t be trusted to walk without falling. But that baby is long gone. Now she runs and twirls and leaps every chance she gets, and I can have full-on, real conversations with her. She refuses to sit in her stroller now unless I bribe her with a snack, and she’s thriving in a full-time preschool environment. She’s the tallest kid in her class, and even though she’s not even 3 years old, she’s wearing size 4T clothes. To put it bluntly, if they saw her on the street, odds are they wouldn’t even recognize her.

Luckily, thanks to FaceTime, that’s not really true. FaceTime calls are as normal in our house as holding up the phone to your ear, and they’ve been a regular part of her life since the day she was born. She blows kisses, plays peek-a-boo, belly laughs, and scream-cries with her grandparents through the screen, the same way she would if they were together. When she wants to hug them, she squeezes the phone to her chest. When she wants to kiss them, she puts her lips directly onto the screen — germs be damned. And when she wants to share her food she thrusts her hand forward toward the open mouth of a grandparent on the other end. It’s all very cute, until you realize you don’t know when the next time she’ll actually be able to do any of those things with them in person.

The six months before COVID-19 we were seeing family pretty often, sometimes traveling to them, but mostly them traveling to us. It was a revolving door of grandparents and siblings and cousins from August through December, with more visits planned for her birthday in March, and then Easter in April. We were in a good groove, but as the pandemic became more serious, and it became clear that traveling was a risky decision, we had to hit the pause button on all of it. We cancelled flights and delayed plans, thinking by summertime for sure we’d be able to see everyone again. August came and went, and September and October flew by in a wink. Now the holidays are around the corner and things are as up in the air as ever.

Holidays were always a big deal in my family, and we always spent them together. No matter who hosted, you could expect lots of people, lots of food, and lots of decorations. The idea that this year things will be different is hard to wrap my head around, especially when I think about my daughter and how I want her to experience the holidays. I feel strongly that even though she is only 2.5 she should participate in our traditions, understand how family and holidays are intertwined, and get a true sense of all the fun and festive energy the holiday season brings. But pulling that off usually requires other people, going places, and doing things—none of which are possible right now.

As I sit and write this essay there are no plans planned, no tickets booked, and no gatherings scheduled. I don’t know who we will see or where we will go, and while this may be a first for me, I imagine I’m not the only one. Since the pandemic has taken hold we’ve missed more moments and canceled more celebrations than we’d like to admit, like my daughter’s 2nd birthday party, Easter, the birth of my best friend’s child, and my mother’s 70th birthday. I want to do everything in my power not to add to that list, but I also realize that this year is about sacrifice. It’s about doing things a little differently than we may have done before. It’s about putting the greater good above what’s good for the individual. Most of all, it’s about making tough decisions now in order to have a better future. I do know one thing though…we will eat turkey and put up a tree, even if it’s just the three of us.

This story first appeared on our sister publication newyorkfamily.com.