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A Pandemic Holiday Season Offers Opportunities For Community, Too

Author Calls Us To Reimagine Rituals And Traditions For The Present Moment

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A Zoom holiday is just one option for re-thinking how you celebrate this year.
Chris Montgomery (CC)

This year, our holidays will look different from other years.

Some people are canceling. It’s not safe — and in some places not allowed — to meet in groups, especially indoors. But writer Priya Parker thinks there’s an opportunity in here, too — a chance to ask what traditions and rituals really matter, and to be creative in finding new ways to celebrate. Parker, the author of “The Art of Gathering” and host of the New York Times podcast “Together Apart,” recently spoke with “To The Best Of Our Knowledge.”

Parker asks us to ask ourselves and our families and friends: “What is it that you need or want this year? Is it a sense of protection? Is it a sense of courage? Is it a sense of possibility? Is it a sense of grace? Is it a sense of repair? Is it a sense of mourning loss?”

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These transcript highlights have been edited for brevity and clarity.

On A Very Different Holiday Season

Priya Parker: A huge part of our opportunity these holidays is to pause and to ask: “What is it that this group of people, my people, need this year for this Christmas, for this Thanksgiving, for this Hanukkah?” And because we have this little thing called the internet, or most of us do, there are actually radical ways to re-imagine how we still come together and have community.

Let’s Admit Holidays Have Never Been All Perfection And Joy

PP: We tend to come to our holidays with this kind of assumption and veneer, even pre-coronavirus, that the holidays are a happy, wonderful time. And that always comes with a big asterisk. The holidays can be a really beautiful time, and they can also be a complicated time. So we’ve always had to figure out how we want to be together.

What Do You, And Your Inner Circle, Need?

PP: The first thing is to think about what is your need as an individual. Is it to feel safe? Is it to feel connected? Given the chaos and the disruption of the year, is it to do the same thing you’ve done every year with the same people — come hell or high water — just maybe virtually?

And then who is the inner circle that you may want to be with or that you are committed to? Or who you are responsible for? And then what does that small group need? And then, it’s like building blocks.

And then you go to the larger group, whether it’s the extended family or groups of friends, and say, “Hey, this is what we’re going to do this year.” You know, either, “We love you and we’ll see you next year” or “Would you like to join us,” and then to think about how you could, whether it’s physically in person, or outside or online. What are the rituals that you want to invent this year?

This might be a year to say, let’s just center joy, and we won’t spend three days together because we can’t. Maybe we’ll do something over two hours. Maybe it’s syncwatching a favorite joyful movie together. Maybe it’s singing together — you know, (with) everyone on mute. And maybe the way to actually be together is to livestream your kitchen starting at 10 a.m. Maybe this year, it’s the preparation you do together, and then you eat apart.

Getting Creative With Old Traditions

PP: I love the example of, OK, if we can’t see “The Nutcracker” this year for a lot of different reasons, ask yourself — well, why do we go to “The Nutcracker?” What do you love about it? Is that the wonder that it brings? Is it the respect for these dancers’ bodies? Is it the power of story? Is it the festive nature? And really begin to actually unfurl with your family, why is it that we love this thing?

I’ll give a simple example. I live sort of near a very cold lake and it’s getting colder and colder and colder. And for my birthday this year, I wanted a sense of doing something courageous with the people that I love in a safe way. And for me, I’m kind of Zoomed out. I invited a few friends to jump in a very cold lake and we did a polar bear plunge.

It’s not rocket science, but it does take thought.

New Traditions Outside Of Churches And University Buildings

PP: Some of those interesting conversations happening about reimagining gathering are happening within churches — particularly with ministers — men and women who are asking, “How do we do this now?” All of the (traditional) ways, at least currently in a virus environment, are super spreader activities, right? Singing collectively, passing a bowl around, shaking hands. And they’re also, ironically, part of the social glue of communities.

So I think some of those powerful questions are at the center of every institution. For the first time, Harvard University collectively and systematically allowed dissertation students to defend their PhDs over Zoom. I have a podcast with the New York Times called “Together Apart,” and in one of the episodes we followed a poet and writer named Clint Smith. He did his dissertation defense this spring at his kitchen table with the proctors or judges at all of their kitchen tables around wherever they were on the east coast. And then his grandfather in his 90s in New Orleans, sipping from a plastic blue Solo cup, was watching his grandson defend his thesis, along with 150 of his friends and family. What does it do when a community cannot just celebrate and toast you outside, but come into the corridors of academia?

The core way that we are coming together is being interrupted. And so we all need to pay attention to see maybe some of this is working better, maybe this is becoming more democratic, or maybe this is totally chaotic. But it is a moment of radical questioning.

On Collective Grief, Mourning And Saying Goodbye

PP: I think that one of the things we need so much more of is opportunity to collectively grieve, to publicly grieve. I’m half Indian. In many countries, including in India and Nigeria and Pakistan, there’s a public norm for grief. Funerals are processions, and not just for heads of state — for anybody.

In the U.S., so much of grief has become privatized, has become non-imposing. And I think with COVID-19, with the racial uprisings, with our elections, that our civic fabric has been torn. And I think just philosophically — whether you are a neighbor or whether you are part of a church or a temple or whether you are part of your local library — to just think about creative ways to come together. And that doesn’t always have to be verbal — (we can) have a lighting ceremony for all we’ve lost this year. And everybody bring a candle and walk.

Saying Goodbye To This Year, To This Time

PP: For New Year’s, think about ways that you can create a small ritual, either yourself or with others, to say goodbye to 2020. I could see, for example, when this vaccine finally comes, creating powerful rituals of getting a vaccine, like collective vaccine rituals where you go in. Can you imagine going and coming out and everyone clapping or everyone cheering?

I think there’s deep power in leaving the before state and coming into the after state. Getting this vaccine isn’t just, if it works, getting a shot in your arm. It’s leaving an isolated state and rejoining a together state.

It’s creating simple, simple civic rituals. The same way during COVID-19 we began to see in certain neighborhoods in New York City and around the world in Italy, people at 6 p.m., 7 p.m. coming out and clapping for our first responders. That’s a civic ritual.

So part of this is we need family and community rituals. But I also think we have a dearth of collective civic fabric mending rituals.

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