During the first week of November, walking through my neighborhood one afternoon, I saw a Christmas tree in someone’s window. This was a week when other houses were displaying jack-o’-lanterns and election signs, and the sight of that prematurely lit-up tree was a bit jarring. You couldn’t help wondering what the story was. Had that family decided to celebrate early because their out-of-town adult children who’d been staying since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic were getting ready to leave again? Were they part of a magazine’s holiday photo shoot? Was someone sick, who might not make it until Christmas?
Whatever else this pandemic holiday season turns out to be — sad, anxious, lonely, or maybe even in some ways lovely — it’s going to be weird, shaped by the exigencies of each individual household. Every family is drifting along in its own little boat, trying to chart a sensible course through the reality of rising COVID-19 numbers, though that may well mean — as it does in our family — a decision not to get together at all.
We’ll pack and mail presents to our sons, who live in different cities. I’ll send them my grandmother’s cookie recipes. We’ll get a tree and decorate it. We’ll light candles and listen to music. (A recommendation: Emmanuel Music’s recent performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations arranged for orchestra, available to watch online at emmanuelmusic.org. It was beautifully played, and the sight of the musicians in black masks, spread out from one another in the great empty space of Boston’s Emmanuel Church, which would ordinarily have been filled with a concert audience, was a moving reminder of the pandemic as a dark backdrop to the bracing clarity of the music.)
Right after the 2016 election, I was in a garden store and noticed a small ornament in the shape of a pomegranate, cut open with its seeds spilling out. I thought of the story of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, the Greek goddess of earth’s fertility and the harvest. When Hades, god of the underworld, kidnapped Persephone and took her to live with him in hell, Demeter went into such despair that the earth froze and nothing could grow. Zeus, the most powerful of the gods, was moved by her anguish and sent a messenger to bring Persephone back from the underworld, which could have been a seamless transition provided she had not had anything to eat or drink during her stay. But Persephone had eaten a few pomegranate seeds, and because she had tasted the fruit of the underworld, she could never be entirely free from that dark place and would have to spend part of each year living there.
I bought that pomegranate ornament in the wake of the 2016 election, knowing that we were heading into a dark time and needing a reminder that it couldn’t last forever. In Greek mythology, Persephone’s was the story that made sense of the seasons. Every year, during the winter months when Persephone was living in the underworld, Demeter’s sorrow froze the earth so that nothing could grow; when Persephone returned to her mother each spring, the earth became green and fertile once again.
Time feels sloshy this year — we lose track of what day it is, what week. We celebrate early, we celebrate late, we celebrate online, or maybe we don’t celebrate much at all. But even in the middle of all the flux and uncertainty, we are arriving at the solstice: the fixed moment in time when the earth starts to swing, slowly but inexorably, toward springtime and the light. Vaccines are coming. A new administration is coming.
I doubt I’ll be thinking of all this as I get out the pomegranate ornament to hang on my tree again this year. Too neat, too pat. I’ll be missing my kids, thinking about the friends I haven’t been able to see this year, worrying about the people I know who are going through especially sad or stressful things right now. Getting ready for a muted Christmas. And also looking forward to the end of January, when it becomes really noticeable that the darkness is lessening, and the light is getting stronger.
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.