Christmas songs, largely, can be slotted into one of three categories: religious, kid-friendly and sentimental. Tunes like Silent Night and The Little Drummer Boy fit into the first category; Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Here Comes Santa Claus fit into the second. Religious songs, and those tailored for the under-10 set, capture immutable aspects of the season: its foundation, in the birth of Christ; and the fact that many of its Western traditions — the arrival of Santa, the exchange of gifts, the boundary-free consumption of sweets and treats — are geared towards children.
The third category of Christmas song, sentimental, most often centres on longing: I’ll Be Home for Christmas; It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas; Last Christmas. The through-line of these jingles is that the best part of the holiday season — snow or no snow; gifts or no gifts; Santa or no Santa — is the holly on your own front door. It’s a season of community and togetherness. Which is why, this year, these songs might feel a little more close to the bone than usual.
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Because of COVID-19, many of us will not be spending Christmas with our families and loved ones. For some, traditions will be tailored for distance: we’ll share meals over Zoom, exchange gifts by mail, and hear about the joy in someone’s eyes as they opened the perfect present over the phone. For those who can gather, because they share a home with their family — or because they’re bubbling with another household — those gatherings will still be smaller. There is a sense of mourning about the holidays this year; that, because our annual longing for togetherness and community will go unfulfilled, the season itself is a wash.
While the celebrations themselves may be marred by COVID-19, this season offers a unique opportunity for growth. It’s important that we accept our pain and longing, and sit with our disappointment, as it strongly underscores the true heart of the season. After all, there’s nothing stopping us from engaging in the more commercial aspects of Christmas: it’s easier than ever to shop online and, since lockdown measures and social distancing have made it difficult for small businesses to sustain themselves, there is an element of social responsibility to shopping this year. This Christmas, we won’t be missing gifts — we will be missing one other. And the forced absence of those we care about can help us reckon with the idea that we have taken togetherness for granted, buried as it has been under the pressures of shopping, decorating and cooking — pressures that have made Christmas more about its physical trappings than its spiritual underpinnings.
For as many who are mourning the lack of togetherness this holiday season, there are those who are celebrating it. Many friends in my age cohort — the millennial set — are breathing a sigh of relief this year. In some cases because of strained familial relationships, yes, but largely because the holiday season has become defined by shopping, spending money, coordinating travel to various families and in-laws, and subjecting ourselves to the pressures and guilts of senior family members who have toiled to prepare the perfect meal, the perfect tree, the perfect holiday. Our parents and grandparents have been doing this for us since we were born; many in my age group will, of course, be celebrating Christmas with their small children, and part of the magic of the season for tiny tots is the sparkle and novelty of decorations and presents under the tree. But a sense of relief at being able to “skip Christmas” should give way to an interrogation into what, exactly, we can do without — and, conversely, what we need to do more — next year, when (fingers crossed), we will be able to celebrate together again.
It’s important that we accept our pain and longing, and sit with our disappointment, as it strongly underscores the true heart of the season.
This holiday season, the time for reflection also comes at a time of global turmoil and tragedy, which has itself centered on distance and, often, loss. COVID-19 has shown many of us just how vital our social and familial relationships are, and how important it is to maintain a strong sense of community in times of anxiety and uncertainty. As we enter a holiday season marked by distance, we are presented with the unprecedented opportunity to identify how this time of year can best serve us, as individuals, and as members of our families and communities, and to determine how to put these lessons into practice next year. It is very likely that we will all land on a similar answer, involving a holiday season with less emphasis on commercialism and perfection, and more on the simple act of being together and sharing space, time and joy. All we have ever wanted for Christmas, after all, is each other.
Rebecca Tucker is a Toronto-based culture and lifestyle writer and reporter. Her first book, A Matter of Taste, was published by Coach House Books in 2018.
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