My dad likes to remind my brother and me, “This isn’t the first holiday season your mom and I have been away from family, it’s our third!” And while that may be true, the first two times were a half century ago when my parents joined the Peace Corps, shipped off to Venezuela, and if the old photos are any indication, spent two years building latrines. My point is that while a family separation may have felt like an adventure back then, I doubt they’re as enthused today about living as quarantined shut-ins in snow-buried Western NY State.
We wanted to celebrate the holidays with our parents/grandparents but did not want to put them or others at risk. Sitting around our dining room table, my wife, Jessica, our daughters, and I kicked around a few ideas that you might have also considered:
- Drive by their house while honking the horn and waving through the window?
Nah, my dad probably wouldn’t hear the horn and my mom would chase us down the road with a tray of cookies.
- Christmas morning Zoom session?
Ugh. One more webcast and we’ll lose our minds.
- Last-minute COVID tests for everyone in the family?
Not only uncomfortable but complicated and self serving. It doesn’t seem right to elbow our way into a testing center at a time others genuinely need rapid results.
But wait… What if we ditched the traditional gift exchange, redirected that money into some kind of outdoor experience, and pulled off a celebration that conformed with every safety protocol?
With that question in mind we made a couple phone calls, the first to a small restaurant near my parents’ house that’s connected to a public golf course.
“Hello,” we began, “Could we host a small outdoor event on your snow-covered golf course, complete with online food orders and – ahem – a big bonfire?”
“Absolutely!” came the enthusiastic reply.
The next call was to Crackerjack Farms, another local business that specializes in horse-drawn carriage rides, and their response was equally accommodating. “In a non-COVID year, you’d be out of luck this close to the holidays,” said the owner. “But this year? We’re wide open. In fact, while we typically log over forty events a year, this year we’ve logged only four. And these horses still need to eat!”
And there we had it. Two phone calls and we’d landed:
- A catered event,
- A raging bonfire,
- A horse-drawn carriage, and my favorite of all,
- A holiday season free of gift wrapping.
My brother and his family agreed to set up the site, staking out the bonfire area with roped off, socially distanced sections for each family unit. And he threw in eight feet long marshmallow roasting sticks with which, miraculously, none of the kids poked an eye out.
The kids went to work adorning the horse carriage with all sorts of holiday paraphernalia.
Jim, the horse carriage driver, cued up Christmas music on his massive Bluetooth speaker.
And my unsuspecting parents, expecting to pass the season in quiet quarantine, were surprised with a knock on the door, the sight of two massive draft horses in their driveway, and a ride straight to a golf course bonfire where their cheering family welcomed them – behind masks and from a distance, of course.
Since this was Western NY State where the wind whips and the mercury drops, our gala lasted only an hour or two but the stories and memories live on.
- What service businesses in your town, whether restaurants or horse carriages or singing telegrams or jugglers, could use a little holiday cheer? (meaning cash)
Whether it’s a circus act at the bottom of a lonely neighbor’s driveway or a takeout meal for a busy postal worker, find ways to engage your town’s small businesses at a time they need the help.
- Which will you reflect upon more fondly, a material object or an experience?
If you have kids, for example, will they enjoy more a plastic Made in China horse from Wal-Mart or a real-life horse ride? Will your teenagers appreciate more new iPhones or a catered outdoor event for their extended family? (Don’t answer that, just go with the catered outdoor event.)
- COVID is a flu that attacks the human body but it does not attack the human spirit.
What can you do, at a time you may feel stuck in Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, to brighten someone’s day in a safe, creative way?
As for my parents, I think they enjoyed this Christmas party at least as much as they enjoyed building latrines in Venezuela, and the rest of our family enjoyed the rush of pulling off a celebration during which neither the bonfire nor the virus had any chance to spread.
Happy New Year to you as well, kind reader. Here’s to a ’21 filled with health and good cheer!