Merry ‘Covid Christmas’? Families struggle to celebrate amid the year’s losses and as coronavirus cases surge

Amy Solo of Greensboro, N.C., with the family presents she was set to deliver to Virginia on Wednesday. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Eamon Queeney

Amy Solo and her husband, Brian, skipped the traditional Thanksgiving dinner with their 20-something kids this year out of pandemic-related safety concerns.

It was okay at the time, Solo said, because “we were all going to be together at Christmas.”

Christmas is always the “big show” in the Solo household, starting with a festive Christmas Eve of hors d’oeuvres and matching holiday pajamas, and then a boozy Christmas morning brunch and present opening, with a traditional dinner in the evening.

At some point the group poses for an annual family photo, which this year was supposed to be post-apocalyptic and Kardashian-themed, in tuxedos and black dresses, a “2020 kicked our butts, but we’re leaving it in style” kind of thing, she said.

But in recent days, Solo, who has asthma, grew increasingly worried about the health and safety issues of the coronavirus, as small groups continue to drive the virus’s spread.

Her 1847 home in Greensboro, N.C., left little room for social distancing, and her children all work in jobs where they come in contact with the public.

The 56-year-old homemaker started making the calls to inform her family of the cancellation on Dec. 18. She began with her daughter Marjorie Solo, 25, a server in Greensboro, and son Burke, a 27-year-old music teacher in Henrico County, Va.

But the hardest call was to the young woman she considers her third child, Alysse Messick, 25, a Washington D.C. hairdresser who has been an adopted member of the family since she lost her parents in high school.

“She’s the one with the tenderest heart,” Solo said, “so the decision not to be together for the holidays was the hardest on her.”

“I was telling myself this story: ‘Seven people, that’s not that many.’ But even in masks it would be so different than what we usually have here – hugs and laying on each other like puppies,” she said.

Much of the country, like Solo’s family, is spending this holiday in a suspension – of fixed plans and quirky traditions, of shared meals and extended gatherings marked by family photos each year like milestones, of long catch-up conversations and first meetings of just-born family members.

Many are making the best of it, arranging just a handful of place settings rather than dusting off the card table from the garage, bumping it up against the dining room table to accommodate the siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, and others welcomed in years past.

Too many others are mourning, such as Karen Kirby, who in a town west of Atlanta is seeking some Christmas solace after losing her mother, father and grandmother to covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. The holiday this year is being marked after more than 325,000 Americans have died of the virus.

In this uneasy isolation, Zoom may be the greatest gift of all, with present-opening sessions scheduled to be shared from the Los Angeles living room of Jonathan Contreras’s mother, who will watch her 14-month-old granddaughter Cataleya open “lots of Disney,” to the Germantown, Md., home of Mary Pedder, who has a time locked in on Christmas Day to join her daughter and grandchildren online in Belgium.

A few days before Christmas, Solo was putting up decorations and “faking it, hanging candy canes from light fixtures and pretending everything’s all right.”

“That’s what you do when the world burns, right?” she said.

White lights twinkled hopefully on the Christmas tree.

A “sad tin of gingersnaps” sat on the piano, never to be eaten. A red wooden tchotchke on the mantel said it all: “This is as Merry as We Get.”

In ordinary times, the family would gather on Christmas Eve, five dogs underfoot, munching on Marjorie’s famous crab dip. A new – well, newish – poker table was set to debut for holiday card games this year.

Then on Christmas morning, everybody does a tequila shot before a plenty-of-bacon brunch and opening presents.

The kids always put a lot of thought into their gifts, Solo said, trying to one-up each other to “win” Christmas. Some of the great gifts of years past are now part of family lore, like the time someone got a “Chambong” – a bong-like device for the rapid consumption of Champagne.

Later it would be the family photograph and the typical big meal of hot sausage dressing, Cajun-spiced turkey, two kinds of potatoes (mashed and marshmallow-studded yams), Champagne gravy and pumpkin pie.

They had also planned a Boxing Day dinner with neighbors on Saturday, inspired by the TV show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” complete with Rum Ham, which figures in one of the show’s more popular episodes.

“It breaks my heart,” Solo said. “But in the grand scheme of things, so many people will have an empty seat at the table this year. All of my seats are empty now, and that’s for the best.”

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– Goleta, Calif.

“We’ll be going to Colorado soon,” Levi Perrin, 5, told his dad gleefully after school let out for the holidays last week.

Jared Perrin paused.

The trip to Carbondale, Colo., for Christmas was the family’s annual end-of-year celebration and a key provision of the compact between Perrin and his wife, Meredith, that allowed the couple to live happily here along the California coast.

When Christmas came, the family would visit Meredith’s parents in the Rockies. That was the deal, and the fact that it included a few days skiing in Aspen, well, all the better.

Levi, the eldest of the couple’s three children, counted on seeing his grandparents. The countdown-to-Colorado chatter always began around Thanksgiving, as it did this year, but Jared and Meredith, both physicians, were quieter than usual about the holidays, uncertain what the virus would do over the next few weeks.

As it turned out, as the nation’s coronavirus deaths topped 325,000, it produced only more fear and, eventually, a fateful call to Tina Linnehan, Meredith’s mother. The family would not be coming. Meredith’s brother in Minnesota, a father of two, also canceled.

“She cried when we told her,” Perrin said. “She was understanding, but it’s very hard, particularly for my wife being so far from her family. This is when it is most pronounced, being away from family. Especially after nine months.”

Perrin and his family are among the 34 million Americans who AAA estimates will not travel this end-of-year holiday season after doing so last year, a nearly 30 percent decrease.

A doctor at the Santa Barbara County public health department who treats covid-19 patients, Perrin said he knows the decision to stay put is the right one, even though it has been a challenge to explain it to Levi.

“We have tried to explain to him all year what we just refer to as ‘the virus,’ ” Perrin, 34, said. “We just had to tell him that like the masks we wear, not being able to travel is a part of what this virus has brought.”

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Vintage family photos adorn the mantel. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Eamon Queeney

– Douglasville, Ga.

If this year were like most years, Karen Bowen Kirby, 44, would be in the kitchen on Christmas Eve with her dad and granny, making country ham and biscuits.

At night, Kirby, along with her parents and granny, her husband and their sons would unload their Christmas stockings, goodies placed inside them by Kirby’s mom. And then they would sit around, checking the lottery scratch tickets that her dad had put in there, too – a long-running family joke.

None of that will happen this year.

There will be no lottery tickets. No ham and biscuits. No stockings stuffed by grandparents.

Wilma Gail Bowen, 70; Willard Daniel Bowen, 73; and Geraldine Lewallen Williams, 91, are all buried, side by side, in the family plot in Paulding County, Ga. All of them, her parents and grandmother, are victims of the coronavirus.

They died weeks apart. And Kirby, an only child, is contending with how suddenly and radically her life changed.

“Some days I know exactly what I’m doing,” she said, “and some days I feel like I’m walking through a fog.”

Kirby’s grandmother, Geraldine, died Nov. 7. A few weeks later, Kirby’s parents died together in the same hospital room, just hours apart, on Thanksgiving. Her father was holding her mother’s hand when he died.

The couple had celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in September.

They had so many plans.

Before they fell ill, her mother was still working as a nurse at a local school. Her father was collecting and selling antiques, which he loved to do.

They were planning this summer to take a cruise all together – a belated celebration of her parents’ 50th anniversary – once they figured the pandemic would be over. And Kirby had just purchased a house for her parents, five minutes down the road from her own, so they could be closer, and her father could drive her youngest son to school.

Even when her parents became ill, Kirby and her husband initially thought that they would be able to bring them home from the hospital in time for Christmas.

“We planned on things being as normal as we could get,” she said.

There will be no normal this year.

Kirby’s friends – whom she refers to affectionately as her “village”-“swooped in” after the funerals.

They put up a Christmas tree in Kirby’s house, and decorated it. They left presents underneath. Her in-laws will host them for dinner on Christmas Eve. Even her boys, also wrestling with the loss of their grandparents, have tried to make things easier on her, telling her not to worry about presents.

“Everyone is reaching out and trying to help, but it’s just that void. It’s something you can never get back,” she said. “We’ve always loved Christmas, but I’m not looking forward to that emptiness.”

– – –

– Philadelphia

Hana Choy, an emergency medicine physician in Philadelphia, had already postponed traveling to Columbus, Ohio, to visit her parents and brother over Thanksgiving because of the surging virus case count.

Instead, she had planned to start the seven-hour drive after her last shift this week. She and her husband would make it to Christmas Eve Mass with her parents, then a holiday week spent with them eating, talking and watching Korean dramas.

The holiday visit had held special significance for her because she had not seen her parents, both 76 and in decent health, for a year.

“It made me really sad not to have seen them for so long,” said Choy, 39, who also is an assistant professor of clinical emergency medicine at Penn Medicine. “That was pulling at me, this sense of, ‘I don’t have much time left with them.’ ”

But the covid-19 case numbers worsened in December. Choy surveyed her friends and fellow physicians, asking them about their Christmas plans. Most said they would use Zoom to do Christmas. Her parents and brother also advised her to stay home.

So on Dec. 17, on the same day she received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, Choy scrapped her plans.

“You would think that because [doctors] see it so much, and we see people so sick from covid, that it would make it easier for us to make these decisions,” she said. “But I think we struggle with it, just like everyone else does, because we have loved ones we’d meant to see and friends we want to hang out with.”

Choy and her husband, Chris Vacca, a 39-year-old business owner, will stay in their Philadelphia home and cook a Christmas meal of ham, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash and twice-baked potatoes.

She has already secured days off in May, around Mother’s Day, and in June, around Father’s Day. She will have received the second dose of vaccine and expects it to be at full strength, so she’ll head to Columbus then.

“It’s worth it: Sacrifice, for now, in order to protect the ones you love and simply protect your fellow human beings,” she said. “It sucks for everybody, but ultimately, the spirit of Christmas, the spirit of these holidays, is to be unselfish.”

– – –

– Milwaukee

When she visited her father last week, Karen Berenson cut the 74-year-old’s hair.

She did things he struggles to do since his Stage 4 lung cancer spread to his brain and decreased his mobility: She cleaned his ears and washed his feet. Once the personal hygiene was done, he told her he’d bought a new sweater and declared himself “all ready for Christmas!”

Covid-19 had other plans.

Berenson’s 78-year-old mother, Jayne, tested positive on Wednesday, two days before they were to gather, after learning she’d been exposed to the virus by her boss at an insurance agency the previous week. She quickly alerted the family: There will be no gathering this year, and she will be in quarantine until New Year’s Day.

“The only phrase that sums this up is ‘2020,’ ” Berenson said.

Berenson’s sister, Nancy Iverson, had already planned to celebrate alone at home with her two dogs. Her husband died of melanoma seven years ago. She’s at high risk of contracting the coronavirus because of the immunosuppressants she uses since receiving a kidney donated by Berenson in 2019.

Before the positive test, other family members were still deciding, left in the limbo between risking their health and missing what could be a last Christmas for some.

“We know how special our days together are,” Berenson said.

Her father was taken to the hospital last week. He came out okay, but it served as a reminder of his precarious health. Two daughters-in-law are undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

Christmas always has included the six adult children, four spouses, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Dean and Jayne Luke buy a gift for everyone.

After each gift opening, the family chants, “Throw the bow!” The recipient tosses the bow at the Christmas tree. If it sticks, family members applaud. If it’s a miss, they jeer: “Air bow!” And playing on repeat in the living room is “A Christmas Story.”

Now, Christmas is on hold till next year. This is the first year the family has missed.

“My dad was really looking forward to seeing everyone,” Berenson said. “He wasn’t built to be isolated.”

– – –

– Germantown, Md.

For every one of her 60 years, Mary Pedder and her family have gathered on Christmas Day to exchange gifts and drink eggnog and eat cookies, and generally have an uproariously good time.

By now, with her kids and her siblings’ seven kids grown up, some of them with their own kids, the gatherings have become massive – often 70 people crammed into her sister’s house on Christmas afternoon for a smorgasbord of ham and turkey and prime rib, among other goodies.

Pedder’s daughter usually flies home from Belgium, where she lives, and her other two children and their spouses drive over. Her nephew is always the first to reach for the tin of her homemade frosted Christmas cookies and gobble a few down. And everybody exchanges gifts through a Secret Santa-type arrangement.

This Christmas, they will meet via Zoom at 2 p.m.

“This is the first year that we all won’t be together,” said Pedder, a retired paraeducator in Germantown, who on Wednesday was driving to her siblings’ houses to drop off batches of her cookies for everyone to enjoy separately.

Her sister who makes the eggnog was doing the same.

Instead of a giant gift exchange, the family opted this year to do a charitable giving exchange instead. Each person will choose a charity to which their Secret Santa will donate.

Pedder will spend the day at her beach house in Delaware, where she will be joined by two of her children and their spouses and dogs. The daughter in Belgium won’t come – “obviously,” Pedder said.

“It’s the first time we’ve done it this way, so I’m sure the day of it is going to be very strange for us,” Pedder said.

But the family never saw much choice in the matter.

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