I personally hate Christmas. I don’t actually hate the holiday itself, I don’t even hate Christmas music. But I hate the reality that, every year, I have to decide what to do with myself once again on this day that is a painful anniversary of betrayal and loss.
My husband left me the day after Christmas 2012 and, abruptly, immediately, our marriage was over. Christmas was the last “normal” day we had, where he pretended he was still invested in loving me and our marriage. Revisiting that territory every year by carrying out all the rituals that we once shared together is a reminder of the lies and the bleak stretch that followed, ending with me moving out of our shared apartment on New Years Day at his request so that he wouldn’t have to see my face when he came back from a trip with his family.
This stretch of holidays is just riddled with emotional landmines and every year I face it down, planning out creative new alternatives to the traditional celebration so that I can enjoy myself without being reminded of loss or grief. I do whatever I can to prevent from adding difficult memories to those already in place–the grief of this one loss is sticky enough as it is without adding anything new to give it more power in my mind.
A Celebration of Hardiness
We’re coming up on another major holiday, one whose iconography is deeply rooted in the myth of individual survival through both communal interdependence and exploitation of vulnerable outside communities. Thanksgiving is a celebration of hardiness, survival, generosity, we tell ourselves. It’s also the demarcation of the Pilgrims’ main moment of pretending to give back to the Wampanoag people, rather than living with abject disregard for the reality of coexisting together on shared land and the obligations to each other that brings. They lived in a society and their actions impacted each other–the Wampanoag sharing their corn allowed the Pilgrims to plant and harvest stores for the winter. The Pilgrims’ European illnesses, in turn, devastated the Wampanoag community.
Thanksgiving, in theory, is an observance of the fact that we live in a society and need to consider each other’s wellbeing in order to survive and even thrive. None of us can observe Thanksgiving as an isolated being–we are interdependent and this is what is being recognized when we come together and offer gratitude to each other for another year in community.
In this spirit, I’ve cancelled the Thanksgiving dinner I was planning on hosting for my family. I’m the oldest of nine children and we haven’t had a major holiday together in almost a decade. My sisters have children now, my grandmother is getting less mobile than she used to be, and my mother’s job as a nurse has put her on the front lines of witnessing our collective fragility in the face of a new and devastating virus. I want to hold everyone close, I want to celebrate being in community with them for the first time since I moved back from Central Asia, where I was working with Peace Corps. I want to share this home I moved into back in April with them, to finally use this space for what it was intended: family gatherings over good food.
Flouting the Spirit
I know that to do so would be flouting the spirit of this holiday, ignoring our need to protect each other and keep each other alive. According to a calculator tool made by Georgia Tech, here in Botetourt County where I live, the odds of someone getting COVID-19 from a gathering of my family (just shy of 20 people, spouses and kids included–which is still well below the state mandated limit of 25) this coming week is around 30%. A 30% chance that someone in my family contracts COVID-19 at Thanksgiving is probably a low estimate, given that no one in my immediate family is strictly staying home: one brother works at Food Lion, a sister works at a consignment store; my mom is exposed to COVID-19 patients at her job and another brother has to travel all over North Carolina every week for his job testing well water quality. Another sister would be coming to join us from just outside of DC where she works for a construction company. And two more of my siblings are attending school in person.
Between all of us, we’re working in moderate to high exposure situations frequently and while the survival rates are getting better all the time and none of us are particularly “at risk,” the odds are just not ones I’m content to live with, especially as I (and everyone) learns more and more about the symptoms of what is now being referred to as “long covid,” where formerly healthy and athletic people are struggling with cardiovascular issues and serious damages to multiple major organs.
It took us almost 10 years to be in a place where we could all logistically make a family Thanksgiving happen. Given these odds, I want to honor the spirit of interdependence and communal longevity and do everything I can to ensure that next year’s Thanksgiving isn’t yet another holiday that I want to avoid due to an anniversary of loss. I couldn’t control my ex-husband’s actions and save Christmas for myself, but I can try to protect Thanksgiving and hope that we can come together next year, in full health, to celebrate our communal survival and give thanks.
Eve Ettinger is a columnist for Dogwood. They teach composition and literature at Dabney S. Lancaster Community College and edit nonfiction features for The Rumpus. They live in Fincastle and enjoy hiking, gardening, and watching queer-centric TV shows. You can follow them on Twitter at @eve_ettinger