JANICE HEALING: Our first COVID-19 festive season - a time of contradictions


It’s three days until Christmas and I just can’t seem to summon up any festive cheer. I’m not a religious person, but I have always loved the year-end festive celebrations.

As a child, Christmas was one marked with so much excitement and happiness that started building days before, with my three sisters and I gleefully hanging up homemade decorations around the lounge and putting up the Christmas tree.

On Christmas Eve, we would put out cookies and milk for Father Christmas and then be given strict instructions by our parents not to wake them up too early.

The next morning we would comply, but nothing could stop us from rushing to the tree to see what presents had been left for each of us and trying to guess what was under the wrapping.

The day would then be a blur of gift opening, pulling crackers and wearing silly paper hats while eating turkey with stuffing, roast potatoes and all the yummy side dishes my mom created, culminating in a huge trifle for dessert. With hearts full and tummies bulging, the afternoon would be spent napping or quietly taking stock of our Christmas haul.

My excitement did not diminish as I grew up. As an adult, I loved buying my own Christmas tree and decorations. Even doing all the gift shopping was something I looked forward to - finding that perfect something for my loved ones was an adventure.

Becoming a mom myself amplified the Christmas experience even more. Now I could begin my own traditions with my daughters and encourage the same sense of delight and awe I felt as a child.

As my sisters and I got married and had kids, Christmas day became one where we would all look forward to gathering at my parents’ house and once again spend the day exchanging gifts, indulging in good food and soaking up family time.

But it’s now three days until Christmas and I just can’t seem to summon up any festive cheer.

It’s been a year since we started hearing the murmurings of a new and deadly virus emerging in China. Little did we realise last Christmas how much the world and each of our lives would have radically changed by the time the next festive season rolled around.

I still sometimes feel like I’m stuck in a weird apocalyptic sci-fi movie. It’s surreal that it’s become normal to be wearing a mask in public. Remember how odd you felt the first time you wore one? A bit like you were playing dress-up? Now we don’t even give it a second thought. It’s just what you do when you leave the house.

I’ve become so accustomed to social distancing that when I watch something on TV and the characters get too close to each other or have some form of physical contact, I get a little anxious because, you know, corona.

When South Africa’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in early March, the likelihood of the virus still being around by December just didn’t seem possible to me. Surely the world would have made a plan by then?

Well, the world is still trying to make a plan while there are significant gains being made in the area of vaccinations. But this pandemic is going to be a reality for a few Christmases yet.

I don’t mean to sound like the Grinch who stole Christmas, but it’s been a hell of a year. Emotionally. Physically. Financially.

And now, at a time that is meant to represent togetherness and family, we are unable to celebrate without the ever-present spectre of COVID-19 lurking in the shadows.

In a bizarre contradiction, the pandemic has enforced the "wrong" kind of togetherness. If you are following the rules in terms of limiting large social gatherings, then chances are you are seeing the same people over and over again. You are stuck at home most of the time and while you love your family dearly, not being able to get those small breaks from them probably means that tempers are shorter and resentments are quicker to build.

On the other hand, many of us also can’t be with our extended family for simple, gentle togetherness unencumbered by the fear that we could be placing them in danger. And that is sad and frustrating.

My first Christmas in the time of COVID is a collection of contradictions. I am safe and I still have a job. Yet I can’t shake my underlying fear about what the future holds. There are so many unknowns and it’s disconcerting to try and plan when I just don’t know what lies ahead. There are no sure bets in this economy.

I am so very grateful for my health and that of my loved ones, but I also know that no matter how careful we are, we could still get sick. It takes just one moment of contact with the virus for multiple lives to be affected.

So, come Christmas Day 2020, I will be celebrating with a smaller, pared down version of seasons past, giving thanks for my many blessings. But I am tired, anxious and just want life to go back to normal. That would be the best gift of all.

Janice Healing is chief online sub-editor at Eyewitness News.