Christmas made my family’s favorite traditions. This one is breaking them.
This is the first Christmas in 35 years—my entire life—that I won’t be with my mother, father and older brother for Christmas.
I live in Brooklyn, New York. They live just outside of Ottawa up in Ontario, Canada. I’m a Canadian citizen, so I could get back into the country, but I would have to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival and besides, I don’t want to risk infecting my family or spreading the virus. I’m taking one for the team—Team Humanity.
That means our 35-year Christmas streak will be broken in 2020. I was so proud of it. Even after we moved away for school or work, my brother and I would always make our ways back home for Christmas. Sub-zero temperatures, two feet of snow—it didn’t matter, we would get there. The four of us would always laugh about it: “Christmas at the Gomes’, just the four of us, no more, no less!” It sounds exclusive (though my family would never turn away someone in need of a place to go for Christmas!), but it was our tradition to be together.
Neither of my parents were born in Canada, and our large, extended families are spread out across the world. We have never gotten together with any of them for Christmas. Uncles, aunts and grandparents would phone to wish us a merry Christmas, but we made our own family tradition, and we stuck to it.
Like any lovable tradition it was always the same. During Advent we would cut down a Christmas tree and decorate it together. They were never pristine, but they weren’t Charlie Brown Christmas trees either. We cut them down in the field behind our old farmhouse, so selection was limited. “Turn the sparse side toward the corner,” my dad would say as we rotated the trunk to avoid the prick of the needles . The smell was so naturally intoxicating. From “Christmas Wreath” to “Pine Needle” and “Winter Forest” to “Balsam Fir,” none of the myriad scented candles I’ve purchased over the years quite captures it. Nor did we give our trees an orderly decoration job. We had an eclectic box of ornaments: random collectables, old primary school crafts with wires sticking out and colorful balls—not the fancy balls (too expensive), but the ones that could stand up to Mr. Bean’s drop test.
On Christmas Eve, we would go to the latest possible Mass (it’s called “Midnight Mass” for a reason, Father). Is it just me, or did the church choir sing the same Christmas hymns every year? They weren’t great, but it was glorious.
A fresh, powdery snowfall overnight made Christmas morning glisten. We would wake up, throw on our comfiest clothes, blast the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah” on the stereo and eat a nice breakfast—with the fancy tablecloth and dinnerware, of course. I would always hug my mom first thing; December 25th is also her birthday. And after breakfast, we’d start a fire, open our presents and laugh. We always laugh a lot when we’re together.
Looking back, I can see how time altered the little things.
Looking back, I can see how time altered the little things. When I was a young kid, my brother and I would wake up before dawn, sprint downstairs, scope out the presents under the tree, grab our overflowing stockings and hustle back upstairs before bursting into our parents’ room. (To this day, I have no idea why they always seemed so tired on Christmas morning.)
Then came my teenage years and early 20s. Oh, how I despised Handel’s “Messiah”! I just needed a few more hours of sleep. Once awake, though, the joy of Christmas morning and being together as a family was irresistible, even to an inexplicably fatigued teenager. It would hit me like a wave. There was nothing else like it.
These last few years as the four of us have gotten older, I’ve been the first out of bed and down the stairs once again. But instead of going for my stocking, I went to the stereo.
There are dozens of other peculiar and intimate moments I could share about Christmas at the Gomes’. But their peculiarity and intimacy are exactly what make them so special to just the four of us. You know what I mean. You have those moments too. Well, you had them.
I know I’m not the only one feeling this. The other day I went to a clinic in Brooklyn to get a Covid test—I was feeling fine, but going on assignment and wanted to be sure I wasn’t infected. “I’d like to get a Covid test, just as a precaution,” I told the masked, face-shielded, plexiglass-encased nurse at reception. She took my information and I sat down. The next guy in line told the nurse the same thing and then sat a few chairs down from me. “Are you travelling?” I asked him. “No, but my fiancé has to go home to Canada, and we just want to be sure.” I told him about my family’s 35-year Christmas streak, broken. It turns out he was Irish, also 35 years old and in exactly the same boat. “Me too,” he said. “This is the first Christmas I won’t be with my mom in Ireland.” For the next ten minutes we both sat there quietly, in socially distant solidarity.
If I’m honest, I don’t really know what to make of Christmas 2020.
If I’m honest, I don’t really know what to make of Christmas 2020. I’ve only ever experienced it one way. I guess it says something that it took a horrific and unprecedented pandemic to keep my family apart at Christmas. We had a good run.
The big question now is, what am I going to do on Christmas morning? I don’t know. But I’m going to do something: something meaningful, something peculiar, something Christmasy. It doesn’t need to be big, magical or expensive. It just needs to be mine and my family’s. Because 35 years from now, when a million other unexpected things have shaped our lives for better or worse, I want to keep a little Christmas tradition alive for another year.
I’m hopeful that we’ll defeat this virus in 2021 and I’ll get to travel back home to my family. Maybe by July or August. And when I wake up in my childhood bed to birds chirping in 30-degree weather (85 degrees Fahrenheit), I’ll make my way downstairs, queue Handel’s “Messiah” and give my mom a birthday hug.
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