British Columbians are the most committed in Canada, polls suggest, to confining themselves to micro household bubbles this Christmas to limit the spread of the coronavirus at the end of a rough 2020.
So how, during this dark and dispiriting pandemic, will they be able to find satisfaction, and even inspiration, in a holiday normally chock full of glitter, gifts, sweets, bottomless drinks and boisterous good cheer with family and friends?
It might not be easy to find the light this particularly isolated Christmas. But it’s not impossible. Part of the answer may lie in sidestepping the superficial trappings of the season to face the current difficulties head on — focusing on strengthening the inner life, the spirit.
Government restrictions will this year cut us off from the usual activities of “conviviality, family togetherness, social solidarity, reunion and communal merrymaking,” says Gerry Bowler , author of The World Encyclopedia of Christmas.
But people can still find contentment and connection in Christmas, which Bowler, a Canadian, persuasively ranks as the biggest single event on the planet .
“Christmas has succeeded in enduring through the centuries and winning global awareness by being capable of holding different meanings.”
Three in five Canadians say Christmas is “primarily festive or fun,” while two in five believe the season has a religious component, according to Angus Reid. However, the 50 per cent of British Columbians who consider themselves Christians will this year not be able to gather in their sanctuaries in sacred unity.
What will they do? For one, Christians, and those with an inter-spiritual mindset, may still find some meaning in the original gospel story.
It’s the narrative of hope and love that begins with Jesus, whom Christians consider the messiah, being born in a year, 0 AD, that was much worse than what industrialized countries are now experiencing, even with this pandemic.
The gospel of Matthew describes baby Jesus being born in ancient Israel “in the midst of destruction, disorientation and desperation,” says Rev. Murray Groom, a B.C. United Church minister and spiritual director.
Rather than the romanticism often associated with Christmas, Groom suggests in this time of COVID-19 consternation that it might be helpful to remember that times were so bad that a Roman dictator, Herod, wanted the infant messiah murdered.
“Where’s the light in such darkness? It lies in the fact that God continues to act in the face of it all,” says Groom, who, similarly, does not believe the divine has been absent while the coronavirus has been wreaking sickness and death.
The Christmas story resonates in Sikhism
White Rock counsellor Jas Sandhu , inspired by the Sikh tradition, loves Christmas in both good times and bad.
Raised in Prince Rupert with Little House on the Prairie as his favourite TV show, Sandhu says his family, like most South-Asian Canadians, puts up a Christmas tree and sings carols.
During this pandemic the story of the struggles of Jesus’ family resonates with Sandhu, who says his colleagues laugh at him when he confesses that he doesn’t seem to mind COVID-19’s constraints. “This is a gift from God,” he says.
In Sikhism, Sandhu says, there is a saying, dukh daru , which means “suffering is a form of medicine.” The pandemic is this year supplying the overriding affliction, he says, believing its medicine can help us heal.
Sandhu encourages people of all faiths, and no faith, to respond to the COVID-19 threat by putting aside “the dramas” of existence and focusing on the inner self.
“This is a time in life when the world seems to be at a standstill. So it’s a time to just sit with yourself. And have compassion for yourself.”
In line with Indian spiritual custom, which believes all religious paths lead to the same ultimate source of life, Sandhu says this Christmas it might be wise to downplay consumption and materialism.
“It’s not what’s under the tree. It’s what happening around the tree. It’s a time to think about the true meaning of Christmas.”
Vancouver Catholic Archbishop Michael Miller, whose archdiocese contains more than 400,000 Catholics of mixed ethnicities, has also been working on ways to shine a light during the moroseness some feel this winter. He’s launched a “Blue Light Campaign.”
To brighten up dark evenings the archbishop has been inviting everyone to use blue lights when decorating churches and homes — as a sign of hope and solidarity with families who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, as well as with others experiencing a “blue Christmas.”
“As every Christmas, so also this year, we are celebrating the birth of Christ who brought light into the world. His light enables us to live with a hope that gives us the courage to face the future, ” says Miller. “Like Christmas lights glimmering in the darkness, we are all called to be lights of hope for our world.”
As if to echo Sandhu, Groom and Miller, polls suggests most British Columbians are open to finding something uplifting and strengthening in this locked-down Christmas, despite its severe limitations and financial disruption.
B.C.’s public health officer, Bonnie Henry, has issued a directive that effectively bans people from inviting relatives or friends into their home during the Christmas season. It’s tougher than in some European countries , which are temporarily lifting social and travel bans from Dec. 23 to 27 so more friends and family can gather in person.
With most Canadians expecting “the worst is to come” with COVID-19, only 28 per cent of British Columbians say they’re going to visit friends or family locally or in another community this Christmas, according to a recent Angus Reid poll . That compares to 40 per cent of other Canadians.
Still there are signs some are keeping their spirits upbeat. Twenty-nine per cent of all Canadians says they’re “really looking forward” to the holiday season, while 42 per cent are “a little excited.” The most enthusiastic are young adults.
How to be a light in the darkness
The author of the World Encyclopedia of Christmas is among those with practical tips for making the most of what is typically called “the festive season.”
Confined to tiny social circles, Gerry Bowler recommends working harder than usual to connect with those you would normally be close to, both electronically and by written word.
“I’ve written more personal Christmas letters and cards this year than for a long time — the sight of another genuine handwriting is powerful in 2020,” he said.
Since some loved ones will be more lonely this year, he also suggests, “Look for ways to remind them of their importance.”
COVID might also have increased the need to donate to charities, says Bowler, who is also author of The World’s Greatest Christmas Stories.
Sandhu, co-author with Kamala Nayer of the new book, The Sikh View on Happiness , says its especially important now to reach out to those to whom you can. In his therapeutic work Sandhu focuses on helping people with addictions. But he also reminds us to lend a hand to children and elders.
World Vision, a Christian global aid organization, has 15 suggestions for “celebrating what matters most this Christmas.”
They include acts of kindness, like buying a coffee for a stranger or donating blood or buying local (since so many small businesses and restaurants are suffering). To feel alive, the organization also talks about dressing up, going for a drive to see Christmas lights and keeping up a tradition whether baking, watching a favourite Christmas show or making cards.
Then there are what could be called spiritual tips, which can run deep.
Since the roughly 2.5 million British Columbians who count themselves as Christians won’t have a chance to attend a service this Christmas, Bowler suggests “Christians should use the vacuum created by the virus to strengthen their own gratitude for the incarnation (of Christ).”
Of the 40 per cent of Canadians who view Christmas as in part a sacred event , the Angus Reid poll says almost half say this year they will follow a service online and reflect on holy texts in their home. Sixteen per cent will pray with others, using video chat.
“Since the bling of Christmas won’t be so bright this year,” perhaps people could seize on the theme of the 12 days of Christmas to choose specific acts or intentions each day that might illuminate the world, says Rev. Groom.
He wonders if people could find inspiration in modelling the humble lives of the parents of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, who endured so much hardship. “Maybe they are the light.”
Finally, even though it’s not an explicitly spiritual message, the author of Happier at Home, Gretchen Rubin, has a suitably out-of-the ordinary insight for getting through the next week or more with equanimity: Remember this season for its irritating oddness.
“Things that go wrong often make the best memories,” Rubin says. “This exceptional holiday season will probably be more memorable because it’s so different. We just have to find a way to make the most of it.”