The coronavirus pandemic has changed nearly every part of people’s lives since March. During this holiday season, it’s disrupting family traditions in a time of year that feels sacred to many.
While some families in Louisa County have put cherished customs on pause out of concern for medically compromised or elderly members, others are creating new traditions. Some families are gathering as they always have, while others are using virtual gatherings to foster feelings of togetherness.
Jane Merle’s family usually gathers for Christmas but this year, they decided to cancel large gatherings after suffering a death in the family from COVID-19. Instead, only Merle’s in-laws, ages 84 and 87, will visit for Christmas to celebrate with her and her husband.
“I’m not going to see my children that live out of town and my husband’s not going to see his kids either, so that’s frustrating because you’re so used to getting together with everybody,” Merle said. “This time of year is about togetherness and a lot of families aren’t going to be able to do that.”
Another tradition Merle says she’ll miss this year is going to church for Christmas candlelight service, which will be online this year.
“That’s something I always look forward to, being with a group and the candlelight service,” Merle said. “It’s peaceful and a time to focus. We can do it at home but you have to get everybody on board to be in that moment.”
Merle says that not being able to celebrate Christmas with all of the traditional gatherings and rituals makes her feel down.
“I kind of feel like I’m just going through the motions right now, which is sad,” Merle said. “I don’t feel like my heart is in it at all as far as decorating the house, going out to get gifts or ordering them online.”
Merle is not alone in feeling like the pandemic has stolen some of the holiday season’s cheer.
Dana Hasal-Vegas is used to Christmases that revolve around family and togetherness. She is Danish and Czech and her husband is Venezuelan. They typically combine their holiday customs which makes for a rich set of traditions, especially with food.
To honor her Czech roots, Hasal-Vegas usually makes fish soup from carp and dense sweetbread made with almonds and raisins. To honor her Danish roots, she makes pastries, sweets, and meats with juniper berry and raisin sauce. To honor his Venezuelan traditions, her husband makes corn-based pupusas and arepas, which can be plain or served with savory or sweet fillings.
“I’ve learned to kind of accept all three nationalities,” Hasal-Vegas said. “The diversity of the foods that I’m exposed to is more than most people would have the privilege of having in a meal.”
Of course, traditionally, Hasal-Vegas’s family would enjoy the food they prepared with their immediate and extended family members, but this year is different. Instead of gathering with family, Hasal-Vegas says it will just be her, her husband, and her daughter celebrating Christmas this year.
“We’re a little bit depressed,” Hasal-Vegas said. “We all took for granted being able to just go where we chose, and now, for safety and health concerns, you can’t because you don’t know what the virus will do or who the virus will affect.”
One tradition Hasal-Vegas said wasn’t the same this year was decorating the tree. Her family usually works together in decorating with traditional Czech glass blown ornaments, felt ornaments, and ornaments made of natural materials such as twigs. Many of the ornaments hold memories for Hasal-Vegas.
“[After decorating] we’d have the tradition of sitting down and admiring the tree,” Hasal-Vegas said. “We would just adore the tree and look at it and there would be happy memories flooding back.”
This year, Hasal-Vegas scaled back on Christmas decorations, putting up wreaths at the door and in the window and putting artificial poinsettias in a vase on her table.
“That’s all the decoration I’m going to do this year because it’s just not the same without having the camaraderie and fellowship of family,” she said.
Some families have adopted new traditions this year. Laura Beth Noel bought a Santa suit for her husband to wear to give her two small children the experience of seeing Santa Claus without putting the family at risk for contracting COVID-19.
“We don’t know what next year’s going to bring,” Noel said. “Now we have Santa every year.”
Marvin and Rosanne Jackson have been putting up Christmas lights since their first grandchild was born five years ago. Though some families have decided to scale back on Christmas decorations this year, the Jacksons thought it was even more important to decorate.
“We decided that our neighbors and the community and anyone passing by needed some care in their life, some happiness, and we thought the Christmas lights would bring that,” Rosanne said.
Every year, the Jacksons add something to the collection of lights. This year, they decided to add a Nativity scene, which is Rosanne’s favorite.
“I just feel that it’ll bring some peace and joy in the world,” she said.
Katrina Duff became an intensive care unit nurse this year and will be spending Christmas evening at Martha Jefferson Hospital caring for patients with COVID-19 and other illnesses.
Duff was previously scheduled to work the evening shift on Christmas Day, but she’s had to pick up additional shifts throughout the holiday season due to an influx of patients and other nurses falling ill.
“It’s wintertime, people are sick, and there’s the Covid surge happening everywhere,” she said. “Much like the schools or businesses that are open, if you have a fever or cough, they don’t want you coming in for the shift … we have to double-check and err on the side of caution for both ourselves, our coworkers and our patients.”
This Christmas will be more “low key” than previous Christmases for Duff’s family. They’ll open gifts together in the morning, have breakfast, and then Duff will try to rest before her shift starts at 7 p.m.
To offset the loneliness of quarantining during the holidays, some families are using technology. Merle’s family is doing a virtual white elephant gift exchange, and many families are planning on calling or video chatting with family members and friends they won’t be able to see in person.
Hasal-Vegas predicts that the increased use of technology by many people during the pandemic to connect with others, both family members and non-relatives, will continue after conditions return to normal.
“You can FaceTime people, go on Instagram, go on Tik Tok, and you can create a family dynamic with others,” she said. “With the pandemic, everybody is getting more into the electronic age.”
People throughout the county are dealing with changes to their holiday traditions and perhaps adopting new ones. Quarantine during the holidays can feel particularly lonely for many, but Hasal-Vegas is optimistic about next year.
“Hopefully, the vaccine will come out, and we’ll all be able to get back to a normal routine,” she said. “Hopefully, 2021 will bring a better Christmas for everybody.”