Pandemic Holidays

FINDING SOMETHING TO CELEBRATE IN ANXIOUS TIMES
By Kamela Jordan
Photography by AB-photography.us

Christmas lights, Diwali lamps, Hanukkah menorahs, Kwanzaa and Advent candles—as the days grow shorter, the holidays bring a little extra light into our lives. This year the gathering darkness feels especially potent. We need some extra light right now.   

NEW BEGINNINGS

“Diwali” in the Hindi language is literally the “Festival of Lights.” Ganga Gopalkrishnan celebrates by waking her family before dawn for an oil bath—rubbing sesame oil into the skin, then rinsing off with a hot shower. The moisturizing oil bath heralds the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. By the time the sun rises, everyone is dressed in new clothes ready for a fresh start.

The rest of the day is spent enjoying music, creating traditional rangoli designs in front of the house, lighting the Diwali lamps and, of course, eating. In India, each family makes their own specialties to share with neighbors and relatives, and Gopalkrishnan has continued that tradition here in Rochester, sharing Indian treats with coworkers and neighbors. 

Gopalkrishnan’s family also participates in the puja (worship ceremony) at Hindu Samaj Temple, praying to the goddess Lakshmi for a prosperous new year, as well as in the celebration sponsored by Rochester Vidhyalaya, where partiers dance to Bollywood hits until midnight. 

With both community events likely to be cancelled this year, family celebrations take on greater importance. “It won’t be the same without the community,” says Gopalkrishnan, “but the spirit of the festival is the victory of light over darkness. I really hope this will bring hope for the end of the pandemic, for light for a new year.”

FAMILY

As the daughter of missionaries, Jeannie Byer grew up attending boarding school in Egypt, seeing her parents in South Sudan only during the summers and extended family only every five years. So she especially appreciates being able to gather the whole family together for holidays. Every Thanksgiving, she invites her six children, their in-laws, their in-laws’ in-laws, nieces and nephews, refugees and friends for a giant potluck feast at her church. “Family is so valuable to me,” she says. “When everybody gets together, you’re so thankful for everybody to be there.”

This year the big celebration will have to wait. Byer and some of her family members have already had COVID-19, so they understand the need for caution.

Even as she misses the opportunity to gather everyone together, she still finds reason to give thanks. “It does take something away. But I’m still thankful that all the kids are healthy, that they all like each other, that we continue to be a close family.”

HOME

Asian Food Store on 7th Street NW is a holiday shopping hub for Rochester women from Vietnam, China, Laos, Korea and everywhere in between. From cheap, fresh herbs to moon cakes, the overflowing aisles hold all the essentials for their family traditions.

Sovanna Meth, a Cambodian immigrant who opened the store with her husband in 1996, celebrates the Chinese holidays of her husband’s heritage, like the Harvest Moon Festival and Lunar New Year, as well as American holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

Running a small business keeps her too busy for three sets of holidays, so the Cambodian celebrations of her childhood have fallen by the wayside, but she doesn’t miss them anymore. “I live here longer than I live in my country,” she says. “I feel I am at home here.”

“I love Christmas here,” she says, her eyes lighting up. “Everything is so bright, so light, so much energy when the holiday’s coming.” American holidays are one of the threads that have woven her into the fabric of life in Rochester.

On New Year’s Eve, which looms larger in Asia where it isn’t overshadowed by Christmas, the holidays of East and West overlap. Meth’s extended family gathers together for a big meal and spends the day together playing cards or watching television. Since their celebration is limited to the small group of relatives who live locally, they don’t plan to change anything this year. “Family is still family,“ she says.

REST

Amy Lindstrom’s family holiday traditions originated as a scheduling trick. Her father’s Swedish family hosted a big Christmas Eve celebration every year, so the December 6 Sinterklaas celebration of her mother’s Dutch heritage provided an opportunity to gather the other side of the family. 

The Dutch Christmas holiday honors St. Nicholas and his legendary generosity (although the accompanying tradition of St. Nick’s servant in blackface was dropped by the Lindstroms like a hot potato). Children put out wooden shoes instead of stockings and wake up to find small gifts waiting inside.

Part of the Lindstrom tradition was going to a thrift store and competing to see who could spend the least on gifts. “It was really more about the family being together and having fun and laughing than about the actual gifts.”

The Swedish Christmas Eve celebrations of her childhood fell by the wayside as older generations passed away, and Amy’s siblings have family traditions of their own now. “As a single adult without children, my holidays look very different.”

As director of the Rochester Symphony Orchestra and Chorale and a professional violinist, Lindstrom’s holiday seasons are normally crammed with concerts. “The meaning of the holiday can get lost in the busyness of my profession,” she says. “There have been years where I’m alone on Christmas, and I feel lonely, but at the same time I’m super relieved to have a break.”

This year most concerts are cancelled, and a large family gathering is unlikely due to her mother’s high-risk health condition and her siblings’ medical professions, but she looks forward to a quieter holiday. “I wonder how early is too early to set up a Christmas tree?” she found herself thinking in September. “I could really use some brightening to the gloom.”   

COMMUNITY

Hanukkah, which celebrates the miraculous provision of lamp oil for the rededication of the Jewish temple, is also called the Festival of Lights. Chana Greene’s family celebrates at home with all the typical Jewish traditions: oil-rich foods like potato latkes and donuts, singing and eight nights of candle-lighting, gifts and spinning a dreidel for the chocolate coins.

But for Greene, who works at the Chabad of Southern Minnesota, a Jewish outreach center on 2nd Street, the community celebrations are just as important. The annual menorah lighting in the Peace Plaza draws as many as 200 people each year, and smaller events bring Hanukkah to various corners of the community. 

This year, of course, everything is different. The menorahs will still be lit in the Peace Plaza and in front of the Chabad center, but the celebrations will go virtual. A plan is also in the works for a menorah car parade, in which participants will drive around downtown with magnetic menorah on top of their cars and pass out treats.

Although the celebrations will look different, the essence of the holiday hasn’t changed. “Whenever I think of light,” says Greene, “I think of how whenever you take a candle to light another candle, yours does not diminish. The world especially right now can feel very dark. When you share the light, goodness and kindness, you make the world a brighter place.”

Family, heritage, community, faith—in a time of global pandemic, the way we celebrate changes, but the things we celebrate remain the same, and each of us reaches for the light. Happy holidays, Rochester women!

Learn more about Diwali, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa!