When it comes to Christmas, I am Buddy the Elf. But this December feels more melancholy than merry. 

For many, Hallmark movies, photos of families in matching pajamas and relentless messages to buy, buy, buy lead us to compare the reality of our own lives with those of the impossibly young, beautiful and wealthy, and with the joyous families and their well-behaved children filling our social media feeds. There’s the pressure to spend money we don’t actually have, and the crushing weight of expectations to be jolly all the time.

And all that pressure is amplified in 2020, a time of very real worry, constant change and pervasive anxiety as we collectively grapple with a pandemic, staggering unemployment, the postponement of holiday traditions and family get-togethers, and lingering isolation. 

Those who live alone can feel the sharp sting of loneliness and longing for human touch. Those trapped inside with families for months on end long for solitude and a moment of ever-elusive privacy to recharge. 

Our faults and insecurities are laid bare, at a time when all of the songs, all of the movies and all of the ads are telling us we should be singing and baking and spreading holiday cheer.

It’s enough to make you want to curl up with your SAD lamp and become a hermit. 

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The author is going all-out for Christmas, as usual, but also feels the weight of a holiday rife with loneliness and loss. (Randy Foster / Special to At Home in the Northwest)
The author is going all-out for Christmas, as usual, but also feels the weight of a holiday rife with loneliness and loss. (Randy Foster / Special to At Home in the Northwest)

My husband has asked me repeatedly, in pre-pandemic years, if we could opt out of the holiday craze. Take a year off from the busy-busy and the merry-merry (and the Christmas sing-along I make him attend, where I blind him with a blinking holiday sweater and overwhelming enthusiasm). The answer has always been, no, it’s unthinkable.

This year, though, there are no rules. This year, there are no sing-alongs. Some may be feeling relief, having a get-out-of-family-drama-free card, especially in an election year. Few want to relive those Facebook arguments in person. Others feel crushing disappointment at not seeing family, at being left out or left behind. Or they feel the burden of defending personal safety choices, and the weight of not feeling understood at a time when validation is so crucial.

But change doesn’t have to be bad. The fact that things won’t be the same, no matter what, provides a chance to rewrite the holidays, right wrongs and let go of traditions that feel forced, too much or not quite right. This holiday is only what you make it, no more and no less.

Some people, certainly, will double down with sheer determination. I am one of them. My parents’ Christmas tradition was to have a big blowout fight, threaten to get divorced, and argue over who would take me, the only child, to live with them. Both wanted their freedom. Neither wanted a kid. As an adult, I’ve reacted by making Christmas the be-all and end-all holiday. I overcompensate with decorations and trimmings and presents for everyone I have ever met, basking in unironic Christmas music 24/7, as a digital log glows on the television. 

I am determined, through sheer force of will, to give myself and my own children the Christmases I never had. This year, even with no holiday parties to attend and no office to go to, I still bought a Santa-print party dress, two ugly Christmas sweaters and a skirt with tinsel and a blinking reindeer nose. No one but my immediate family will see them.

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I’m not alone in this. Many are overcompensating with gifts to counter the gloom, “save Christmas” and make our children (and ourselves) happy. In a year defined by what we can’t control, it’s comforting to make lists and check them twice. I’ve written things down that I’ve already done just to feel the sense of accomplishment when I cross them off. Even in this leaner year, with so many struggling financially, the material pressures mount in an effort to make things normal for just one day. To collectively pretend that the pandemic hasn’t stolen real people we love, our livelihoods, our escapes, our security, our social lives, our collective sanity. Just shop until you forget about it and it feels like Christmas.

But you can’t buy normalcy any more than you can buy your way out of a pandemic.

You can, however, grant yourself and your family a little bit of peace, and it costs nothing.

The antidote to buying too much, and not having enough; the solution to melancholy and disappointment when no one shares your cheer, or everyone wants you to be cheery when you aren’t, is the same: gratitude. 

It won’t replace those we’ve lost or minimize our struggles. It changes nothing materially. But what it can change is our relationship to loss, struggle and worry.

Grieving the loss of my imperfect father is supplanted by gratitude for the time we had before he departed this earth. The loss of my daily coffee walks with my BFF at work is replaced by gratitude that she still makes the effort to text and FaceTime outside of meetings. Frustration with my family all up in my space (and face) is replaced by gratitude that we’re healthy enough to annoy each other. Sorrow at not being able to visit people has been replaced by gratitude for their dedication to protecting themselves so they will be around for many years to come. 

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Christmas 2020 is a dream deferred. It’s also an opportunity to appreciate what truly matters. If you’re reading this, you’re alive, which is cause for celebration. Keep going. 

For many, connection with family and friends will look different over the holidays. That may be crushingly disappointing, or it may be a relief. (iStock)
For many, connection with family and friends will look different over the holidays. That may be crushingly disappointing, or it may be a relief. (iStock)

Since gratitude begins at home, I offer this old therapy trick you can do at home in your pajamas: Anchor yourself in your five senses. As I write this, I smell my soggy shepherd dog, who brings me comfort through these dark days and forces me to go outside. I see my screen, which means I’m still employed and can get through another two weeks until payday. I taste coffee on my tongue, cheaper at home than Starbucks, and a sign of a reliable routine and self-care. I hear my son doing remote school on his laptop, his rising voice meaning that, while he may be frustrated, he’s participating in class. I touch my arm, in front of me. It’s proof that I’m here and alive. I was sick for two months recently and had to take a medical leave. But I did not die. I’m here for another Christmas. So are you. That is more than many.

So turn off the holiday tunes or turn them up. Trim the tree or take a year off. Cook the feast or order takeout. Double down or relieve yourself of every obligation. All are valid in a pandemic year. 

But one thing you should do: Make a list. Not the endless to-do list of the season. Not the list of things to buy. Not the list of all the things that are wrong this year and all that you miss and want and don’t have. For this moment, make a list of what you’ve got, starting with the clothes on your back and the ability to read. Hold onto what you have. Sometimes it’s enough. May the best present you open be your own eyes, for another day.

You may not feel great, but you can choose to be grateful. 

Bree Coven Foster is the editor of marketing and public service initiatives at The Seattle Times, a freelance writer and author of “Weird and Wacky Washington Places.” She lives in West Seattle with her husband, two kids, a dog, a cat, a bird and four Advent calendars.