What I learned from holidays in 2020

During this past year of uncertainty, holiday traditions became more important than ever. Although we observed holidays differently this year, they represented the mileposts on the calendar that helped us navigate through the year as they arrived whether or not other plans were cancelled.

The last holiday that resembled past celebrations was Purim, which was March 10. Although we were aware of COVID-19 and followed the news about the virus was spreading and killing in New York and in Europe, at that time there were less than 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Arizona so it didn’t change our holiday plans. We attended the Star Wars-themed Purim party/Megillah reading at our synagogue and the following day the kids wore Purim costumes to school and we went to a Purim dinner at a friend’s house that evening. I remember hugging friends I hadn’t seen in awhile and the nagging voice was already in my head (Should we really be hugging? What if someone here has the virus?) But at that time, the voice was more of a soft whisper and I could easily ignore it since there didn’t really seem to be any danger locally.

That Friday, the governor ordered that all schools close for the rest of the month, which eventually extended through the end of the school year.

By that time we had already invited guests for our Passover seder, family and friends that we regularly celebrated the holiday with each year. Then the week before the first seder, we all decided it would be safer if we didn’t gather for the holiday. Instead we held the first seder on Zoom and the second seder was just our immediate family.

For Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day), instead of attending a community celebration, we ate falafel and hummus.

Adam’s was our first quarantine birthday. Although we didn’t have a birthday party we had a little Zoom birthday call with birthday cake and presents. Later that month, my great-niece turned 1 and we watched her dig into her first-birthday cake over Zoom.

For Mother’s Day, we went to visit my mother-in-law, grateful that she lives locally so we could still visit. We stayed outside on the porch for the visit, but were glad we could at least visit her in person.

The school year ended – virtually – right before Shavuot. We made blintzes, a traditional Shavuot dairy treat. Each week Shabbat came and went, at home. We lit Shabbat candles, sometimes I made challah. We missed our Shabbat guests and our Friday night meals grew shorter. Sometimes I watched our synagogue’s Shabbat services on Saturday mornings. Surely this would all be over before the High Holidays, right?

For Father’s Day, we visited my dad (also grateful that he lives in town) and the boys went swimming. We stayed outside, socially distanced, with my dad staying out of the water with a mask on. We also participated in a Father’s Day community service project with our synagogue, making sack lunches at home that we dropped off at the synagogue (rather than putting them together in person.)

During the course of the summer, the younger boys attended birthday parties of friends – both outside swim parties where they were the only guests or “drive-by” birthdays, where the kids would gather outside and have frozen treats from a food truck. For my husband’s birthday, I picked up a meal from one of his favorite Mexican restaurants. Bar mitzvah celebrations that at the beginning of the year included a morning-long service and an evening party, mutated into a Zoom service and a drive-by gathering.

On the Fourth of July, we made a Red Velvet cake with white frosting and red, white and blue sprinkles and briefly watched fireworks from our backyard. Usually at this time we travel to Las Vegas to spend the holiday with my aunt and cousins and we missed this special visit.

Our big birthday month is August (mine, my dad’s and our two older sons) so we celebrated quietly with special dinners (outside in my dad’s backyard for his).

Then it was already the High Holidays and of course, in-person services were cancelled. It was incredible how synagogues adapted despite the fact that we couldn’t celebrate as usual. In addition to virtual services, we had a Zoom Rosh Hashanah seder and other online High Holiday programming.

Rosh Hashanah seder with our synagogue

One thing missing from all these holiday celebrations was that because so much centered on attending synagogue for the Jewish holidays, the boys weren’t as into them because they couldn’t be with their friends. Besides the food aspect of each holiday, I felt that I did most of the holiday observances myself, as I was the only one watching the services, singing the songs, etc. Thank goodness for the special holiday foods, as that brought everyone willingly together to the table.

However, the participation aspect changed with Sukkot. Ron built the sukkah with the boys and we all decorated it and ate our meals inside. Because it’s outside, my mother-in-law came for a meal. I purchased a lulav and etrog for the first time, as usually we are able to do that mitzvah at school or at the synagogue.

We celebrated Halloween by putting out a table in the front yard with candy on it and had some outdoor masked guests. It was our first Halloween in our new neighborhood and we weren’t sure what to expect but wanted to be good neighbors and provide candy. We only had a handful of trick or treaters, which resulted in with many leftover handfuls of candy. (The kids didn’t mind.) The younger boys also carved pumpkins.

By the time Thanksgiving came around, we had learned so much more about the virus and learned that the biggest dangers were different households being together unmasked indoors. So we felt like if we followed those guidelines, it would be safe to have a small outdoor Thanksgiving gathering. (And fortunately the weather was beautiful so didn’t have to worry about rain or blizzards, as families in other parts of the country were facing.) We had both of our parents over, as well as good friends who we’ve been celebrating holidays with for years but hadn’t seen since March.

We set up socially distanced tables outdoors, wore masks when we were not socially distanced and took other safety precautions. It was a breath of fresh air, feeling a sense of normalcy to have people over.

I also scheduled a Zoom call with out-of-town relatives – many who we’ve spent many Thanksgivings with through the years – and had a chance to get together for the holiday, even if it was only virtual. It was so nice to see everyone.

Hanukkah came early this year – two weeks after Thanksgiving so not like the Thanksgivukkah of 2013 but it was a fairly quick shift between finishing Thanksgiving leftovers and preparing for Hanukkah.

Since Hanukkah is eight days, we usually have a pretty varied week, from school and community events to synagogue celebrations to meals with families and friends. This year was much more low-key, but it really felt like a celebration.

We lit our menorahs each night and I was so impressed how much programming the local Jewish organizations had. We went to an outdoor scavenger hunt at Chabad of North Phoenix (driving to different locations), had an outdoor menorah lighting at Beth El Congregation (where the boys got to run around with their friends on the front lawn for the first time since March), to a socially distanced/masked outdoor lunch with my dad and Ron’s mom that included homemade latkes.

Chabad of North Phoenix Scavenger Hunt

PJ Library provided Hanukkah bags filled with different activities for the younger boys, such as making sugar cookies, decorating Hanukkah shirts, making dreidels and more. Both our synagogue and the boys’ school had nightly virtual menorah lightings and programs (we weren’t able to participate in all). Plus we at lots of doughnuts, which we usually don’t eat the rest of the year.

Last night of Hanukkah 2020.
Our family with the light of our menorahs on the third night of Hanukkah.

What I learned this year

One thing I learned this year was how much our holiday traditions involve being part of a community. On a typical year, we enjoy gathering with friends and family for the holidays and this year their absence was felt (although I realize we were fortunate that my dad and mother-in-law live here so we got to see them). My heart goes out to those who live far from family or who are health-compromised and experienced isolation these past few months.

I also realized how much we rely on community organizations (including the boys’ school) to get our kids engaged in the holidays. The younger two, now 10 and 12, are still interested in crafts, stories and other activities, but would rather hang out with their friends, even if it’s online. Hands-on activities – like lighting the menorah, building a sukkah or cooking/eating special foods are more likely to engage them.

I knew food played a big part in family holiday celebrations, but this year more than ever highlighted that. When I asked my 12-year-old to name one thing about the different holidays, his answers were: “matzah,” “fireworks,” “cheese,” “apples and honey,” “a sukkah,” “candy” and “menorah.” Can you guess which is which?

Although the rest of the year is a bit of a blur between work, school (both in-person and virtual) and masked trips to the store, the holidays really stand out as bright spots connecting us to others and the past (even if those connections were virtual). This year, more than ever, highlighted the importance of family traditions and hopefully when my sons grow up, they will continue the family traditions that are meaningful to them and help them feel connected to others through the years.

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