The holiday season always makes me sentimental. A concerning amount of hot chocolate, family hikes of getting lost in the woods, viewings of the Polar Express. Yawning my way through to midnight on December 31. Snow-covered New Year’s mornings.
A year ago, we shaped 2020 with a hesitant sort of hope. The pandemic was a dark time to be looked back on with historic lenses. On December 31, 2020, it was easier to shrug off overhanging clouds of COVID-19 with the belief that 2021 was our year—everything was supposed to be on its way back to normal. We would have vaccines and faster tests, falling case numbers, fewer hospitalizations, and most importantly, fewer people would die. The world would be fully open. We would be back on campus with our friends and not as worried about infecting our family.
Arriving in 2022, where COVID-19 is still a present reality, this hasn’t been the case—and this New Year, it’s a little harder to feel happy. And that’s really okay.
Every Christmas week, my dad plays and replays Greg Lakes’ song, “I Believe in Father Christmas.” “They said there’d be snow at Christmas. They said there’d be peace on earth. But instead it just kept on raining.” The point? Holiday expectations don’t always hold up.
My mom always makes the holidays magical in little, precious ways, but this is the first year that the festive spirit hasn’t been able to outshout what’s happening around us. I am grateful to be home with my family; my eyes still light up singing holiday carols. I still dance in the snow any chance I get because, to me, winter is always the best time of year. But there’s a sadness that weighs a little heavier. Entering pandemic year 3, COVID-19 jokes don’t hit the same. 2021 began with the attack on the capital and progressed with legislation that curbed democratic voting rights. The world (literally) keeps burning, making expectations of happiness around the holidays ironic.
“Hallelujah, Noel, be in Heaven or hell—the Christmas we get we deserve.”
I refuse to think hope is impossible, or that the deaths of over 5 million people (due to COVID-19 alone) were unavoidable. I teeter between immense frustration at individuals who refuse to vaccinate, and remember the systemic flaws in our government, justice system, healthcare, national ideology, and education that got us here. I am also immensely grateful to those who got it right in 2021— developers of vaccines, healthcare workers who sacrifice their safety, frontline employees in vulnerable communities, and the scientists who keep working to educate the public.
We’ve seen the failings of individual choices and macro-level systems, but hopefully in 2022 we can channel that experience into other shared problems. There are issues that haven’t stopped with COVID-19, like an international refugee crisis and persisting climate change, which demand our attention in the New Year. If we learn anything, perhaps it is that we share the consequences of global choices, and crises could be prevented or reduced through systemic changes.
I also don’t want the ridiculous stress levels students faced in 2021 to be an assumed constant.
Through 2020, I watched fellow students remain persistently positive during serious concerns over their families’ health, the burnout of online education, and the cognitive dissonance of spending university back in childhood bedrooms. I hoped this year things would get easier for everyone, and college students would have a last shot at being lighthearted, adventurous, and well, stupid, before they were asked to grow up.
That opportunity isn’t fully gone, but this past semester saw students back in an overly-demanding academic environment, while also dodging COVID-19, trying to maintain a crumb of balance, juggling personal sickness, and returning home for ill loved ones. I have watched 20-year-old friends take on responsibilities to protect their peers and family with the maturity of someone a decade older. 19 feels way too young to call someone “resilient.”
Now, some are taking leaves of absence. Others are beginning to doubt whether they can complete their major. Many are wondering if their hard work is worth it in a world overshadowed by COVID-19 or other disasters. There is a decided weariness, of drawn out promises of when will life really feel the same again.
I’ve been very privileged with the calm holidays I’ve been granted, and I acknowledge that Christmas or a Gregorian calendar new year isn’t the default for many. The holidays are often a time for me to reconnect with my family, my faith, and my sense of peace. It pains me, therefore, to spend precious time already worrying about next semester. As much as I love break, I’m not sure I will be ready for the onslaught of classes come January 12, especially if 2022 is anything like this year. I am not even sure what the onslaught will look like.
I want to be brave entering 2022. I want to run into it with the same energy I had last year, but maybe that isn’t necessary right now. At the beginning of 2021, I wrote down a series of tangible goals and met most of them. For 2022? I just want to be a little calmer. A little more content to just spend time with the people I love. A little more attentive to people.
“I wish you a hopeful Christmas. I wish you a brave New Year.”
I am becoming okay with the fact that the holidays can’t act as a salve to heal year-round difficulties. Just because there are reindeer inflatables or red and green lights outside people’s houses doesn’t mean we have to feel a certain way, and a pensive December 31 doesn’t make the holidays less special. Reflecting on what this year has been, without conjuring emotions meant to satisfy a certain date, makes me more appreciative of the ones who got me here.
Christmas songs, Hallmark movies, fireworks, and New Year’s Eve parties tell us that the holidays should be a time of peace. They should be a time of joy. But for some people, they just aren’t right now. For others, maybe the holidays have never been a time of celebration.
I hope I look back at this article in a year’s time and cringe. I hope I deem it melodramatic. Next New Year, I want to feel ridiculous ever thinking about the holidays in such a maudlin fashion.
But if this is you this holiday season—if you’re struggling to find simple joy, that’s valid. I won’t wish you the happiest of New Year’s. I won’t expect you to be ingeniously hopeful. I won’t oblige you to feel joyful if you’ve faced a year of pain and exhaustion.
But I will wish you a restful one. And I will wish you a peaceful one. Have whatever kind of New Year you need.
And this time in 2022, whatever the holidays mean to you, maybe it will be a little easier to say those words: Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.