By Ian Zhao
Christmas means many things to Katie Rees: the smell of sweet potato casserole, a sense of belonging and the feeling of being loved and surrounded by family are amongst her favorites. Every Christmas morning for the past decade, Rees has woken up to presents, the sense of happiness and reassurance that at least for that day of the year, nothing will be subject to change.
Her day usually begins with her family getting ready to travel back to her uncle’s farm in South Carolina, where the celebration with her extended family officially begins. Later, a family dinner of over 30 people followed by presents, games and catching up with one another. This year’s celebration, however, will only involve her most immediate family members as a result of COVID-19.
“It’s definitely easy for us to feel a little bit lonely,” said Rees, a sophomore government and politics and theatre major. “Many people are used to feeling very loved and surrounded by loved ones during the holidays.”
For Thanksgiving this year, Rees stayed home preparing dinner with her mother, followed by a family meeting over Zoom to stay connected while protecting members of her family that are at higher risk.
“It’s definitely not the same,” said Rees. “It’s nothing like hugging your family that you haven’t seen for a long time, but it lets us still keep the connection while being careful because I have a lot of people in my family who are at risk.”
Rees said that she understands the importance of COVID-19 precautions and what it could mean to others in her family.
“It could be a matter of life and death,” said Rees. “That’s why I think we need to remind ourselves even if we are not going to be personally affected, but there are people that are going to be affected. So we must still act.”
“As things are changing in our lives, we hold on to things that we know that won’t change like spending time with holidays and things that we have done for years,” said Rees. “But this year we can’t necessarily do that. Just for the safety of others and the health of others.”
Christmas brought new meaning into Kathleen Heist’s life 11 years ago. When Heist received a call on Christmas Eve in 2009 telling her that she was matched with a newborn girl who was available for adoption, she immediately jumped on a plane.
“It’s weird that it coincided with the birth of Jesus, but really we are celebrating the birth of Grace,” said Heist, a former journalist and media coach. “Everybody thinks it’s a really beautiful Christmas miracle story.”
Heist’s family holds an open house party on Christmas Eve each year with over 50 relatives, friends and people in the neighborhood stopping by to celebrate the beginning of her daughter’s life and the life of her family. This year will be the first in the past ten years that her daughter, Grace, won’t be getting a birthday party but rather a celebration amongst the four most immediate members of her family.
Heist also decided against the use of Zoom for the virtual family gathering on Christmas, a decision which sparked disagreement among the family, after her recent experience during Thanksgiving.
“We did a Zoom with my husband’s family, and we did a Zoom with my family,” said Heist. “My parents are older […] and they are not very good with technical stuff […] it’s really hard and confusing for them to figure out who was talking.”
Valentina Petroni’s family is from Argentina, where they travel to each year for a Christmas celebration of over 40 people. This year, her family will stay in the U.S. — a decision that disappointed many members of her family.
Petroni’s paternal grandfather, Ricardo, will be spending his Christmas alone in Argentina this year. Ricardo calls his children every week to complain about the decision and insists they come back to visit.
Ricardo, a 78-year-old widower, insists the family comes back to Argentina to visit him over Christmas. Petroni’s family decided not to visit for the safety of each other as the number of positive COVID-19 cases broke new records in the U.S.
Petroni, a senior majoring in astronomy and physics, was living on campus until Thanksgiving this year, and she is currently living at home in New Jersey. She will only be celebrating with her closest relatives on Christmas.
Petroni said that she is also sentimental about the decision against a family reunion over Christmas. Each year, they reunite at her aunt’s house and have dinner before sunset, she said, which seems unlikely to happen this year.