Having A Pandemic Holiday

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A Candle For Hope And Renewal

Sharing Gratitude and Hope

As winter approaches, millions of people are rethinking their usual holiday habits. With the pandemic picking up speed, with thousands of new cases announced daily, November is shaping to be the worst month yet. Worst of all, small indoor gatherings are being called out as major sources of infection. Just writing that makes me so sad; even my weekly gardening group, the intrepid Friday Tidies, has been told to step down for the duration. After some 22 years with very few missed weeks, we probably won’t stop gardening, but we will sadly work alone and forgo our usual masked and distanced check-ins.

This weekend, Washington State’s Governor Inslee called for a four week moratorium on gatherings, including meeting with extended family in our own homes. I doubt that many people were surprised, and indeed, most people I know had already made the decision not to celebrate winter holidays in person with family and friends. After a sunny summer when outdoor meetings felt safe, our little family bubbles are drawing in closer again. Like so many other folks, I’m talking with family about ways to stay connected while staying safely apart. Several friends have been meeting virtually for months now, whether weekly for lunch or even nightly for cocktails. I deeply enjoy Saturday morning tea with my ASOBI sisters (ASOBI stands for Aging Solo On Bainbridge Island. We talked about letting guys in but decided that they should start their own group and call it ADOBI for Aging Dudes…).

Holiday Table For One?

Over the years, I’ve spent quite a number of holidays alone, sometimes sadly, sometimes happily, sometimes with quiet relief. These days, my daughter and I are often the only ones at the holiday table, and we are both quite contented with our extremely low key revels. As I’ve aged, many of the lively traditions that felt wonderful to my younger self have been replaced by more contemplative practices. When scattered family made for ever-smaller gatherings, I found places to serve holiday meals to homeless folks instead. When decorating the house started to feel like a chore, my daughter and I chose our favorite items, offered boxes of holiday decor to family, and donated the rest to a local charitable thrift shop. I still enjoy making seasonal wreaths with garden gleanings, delighting in the brisk scents of pine and fir, rosemary and oregano. Some I share, while others remain outdoors as garden decorations, held together with clumps of moss instead of wire so they can be tossed into the compost or allowed to molder in place to nourish the garden soil.

Even when alone, I liked to observe at least a few of the traditional markers of the holidays. At my table for one, I’d set an empty chair for whatever unexpected guest might come along. Some families similarly reserve a chair at celebrations to honor those who have died, someone who might be estranged, or travelers who are far from home and family. I often set an extra plate as well, with a big beeswax candle on it. My daughter and I still do that now, and that flickering flame reminds us silently of our dear ones, distant or departed.

But What About Food?

For many (perhaps most) of us, holiday traditions center around beloved foods as much as specific activities. That concept can certainly stand to be re-examined in light of our current situation. If our gatherings are reduced to a handful or even fewer, cooking a huge turkey and masses of side dishes seems both daunting and a bit silly. What could underline the paucity of the guest list more than an over-abundance of food, especially when we know that so many families are struggling as jobs are limited or vanishing? It seems only sensible to consider serving game hens or a plump chicken instead. Even more to the point, it’s a good time to focus on having a few favorite dishes instead of the usual things considered obligatory by some traditional standard.

Now I can laugh at the memory of the first Thanksgiving after my husband died on Halloween night, but it sure wasn’t funny then. Still shocked by grief, I wasn’t up for cooking and planned to get a lovely meal for my mom from a local restaurant. At the last minute (as in Thursday morning), Mom decided that she NEEDED me to make the whole enormous traditional meal for the two of us plus my daughter. I found a fresh turkey, caramelized onions, made cranberry relish, mashed potatoes, made mushroom and bacon gravy, and steamed broccoli and green beans. I even made a pumpkin pie and whipped some cream. My daughter, who was caring for mom, helped me carry it all into her kitchen and get the table set. We sat down and I served everyone a full plate, at which my mom stared for a minute before saying, “Where’s the stuffing?”. I’m still proud that instead of replying, “Get stuffed,” I merely said, “Mom, want to try that again? And maybe start with ‘thank you’?”

We Gather More Or Less Together

This year, our celebration table will have an empty plate with a candle. When we sit, we’ll extinguish all the lights, have a moment of recollection for all we have lost, then light the candle to remind us of what we still have in abundance and what will remain when we ourselves are gone. For me, thanksgiving is really about sharing gratitude and celebrating belonging–to family, community, or the fellowship of humanity. I’m deeply grateful and relieved beyond measure to be able to look forward to a new team in the White House and a healthy, wholesome new direction for America. I’m grateful that I can talk to family and friends on the phone or make a zoom call and see their faces and hear beloved voices. I’m grateful for our modest home in a comfortable, accepting neighborhood. I’m even grateful to my mom for the many-layered stories she engendered and the deep lessons I learned. Onward, right?

Here are some scaled-down versions of recipes that were voted in this year, including my own favorite combination of roasted vegetables, a spritely salad, and an old fashioned, not-too-sweet pumpkin pie.

Roasted Cauliflower, Sweet Potato, & Cranberries

2 cups cauliflower florets
1 small sweet potato, peeled and sliced (1/4 inch)
1 tablespoon avocado or high temperature oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup raw cranberries, washed and picked over

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Toss vegetables with oil and spread in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and roast for 20 minutes. Stir with a spatula, add cranberries and roast until well caramelized (15-20 minutes). Serves 2-3.

Sparkling Winter Salad

1 cup Savoy cabbage, finely chopped
1 cup Napa cabbage, finely shredded
1 cup shaved Florence fennel
1 small satsuma, sectioned
1 cup chopped Opal apple
1/3 cup pomegranate seeds (optional)
2 tablespoons stemmed cilantro
2 tablespoons roasted peanuts
1-2 teaspoons fruit vinegar (Plum or nectarine are nice)

Toss all ingredients and serve. Serves 2-3.

Andrew’s Pumpkin Pie

This dairy- and sugar-free version tastes rich and old fashioned, perhaps much like the early Thanksgiving pies made when sugar was scarce.

1/2 cup dark molasses or maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon each cinnamon, coriander and ginger
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
2 large eggs, beaten
2 cups (or a 15-ounce can) cooked pumpkin pulp
1-1/4 cups plain almond, coconut, or hazelnut milk
1 unbaked crust

In a large bowl, combine all but crust and blend well. Spoon into unbaked crust and bake at 425 degrees F. for 15 minutes, reduce heat to 350 and bake until set (40-50 minutes). Let stand for an hour or more before serving. Serves at least one.


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2 Responses to Having A Pandemic Holiday

  1. Robin Scott says:

    Just dropping in to say how much I love your writing. I’ve never commented before, but have followed your blog for years. The tone of this post resonated so much with me and helped put into words how this upcoming holiday season feels and ideas on how to cope. Wishing you peace, love and light.

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