­When You Can’t All Be Together for the Holidays

by Carol Luebering

The young woman who usually checks my groceries asked if I had had a nice holiday. “Oh, yes,” I replied. “I had all my kids around the table for a change. How about you?” “It was awful,” she answered. “My brother went to his new in-laws and my only sister and her family moved out of state a few months ago.”

Her disappointment reflects the realities of life in our age and society. Conflicting demands put a lot of distance between family members at holiday times. The twin tragedies of death and divorce make holidays extra painful, but they are not the most common reasons family members do not gather at one table in holiday seasons.

Ours is a highly mobile society. Kids leave home for college, and the next thing you know they’ve married and acquired a whole new set of family members to consider. The business of earning a living often dictates a long-distance move; service in the armed forces can place loved ones not only at a distance but also in danger. Even local work schedules can play havoc with the timing of family celebrations. And here in the year 2020 we are dealing with a worldwide pandemic that has made gatherings come to a standstill.

Working your way through.
At one time or another, I’ve been on nearly every side of these barriers to family holiday gatherings. I know how it feels to wish I could get all my family together at once. I remember how orphaned I felt when I was far from home at holiday time.

The one thing I have learned is that you can’t tear the barriers down; you can only try to work around them. If any or all of these walls divide your family at important times, let me share with you some of the detours I have discovered. They can help whether you are the faraway loved one or the one who misses someone who can’t be with the rest of the family at a special time.

Celebrate moveable feasts.
My youngest daughter married a man whose birthday is Christmas Eve (never mind that we already have three birthdays in the same season!). Never in his life had he celebrated “his day” on any other date. It was a shock to him to find that his new in-laws considered all birthdays moveable feasts. But with two local kids—a nurse and a librarian—both working irregular schedules, we light the candles on the birthday cake whenever we can best arrange it.

A friend whose family’s birthdays cluster in the summertime tells me that her family does two large birthday celebrations: one for the June honorees and another in August for the others. Another whose son and grandson were both born in October combines the two. The adult has no problem waiting to open his gifts until the little one has torn into his.

Some holidays can’t be moved because they have religious or civic meanings. That is, the public rites are inflexibly scheduled, but family celebrations needn’t be. For example, there is precedent for exchanging Christmas gifts neither on the eve nor on the day itself. In some cultures, children open gifts on January 6, the feast that commemorates the tradition of the three kings bearing gifts to the infant Jesus. Sometimes the best solution is to leave the tree up until the largest number of people can gather. It’s certainly more fun to watch people open gifts, whether you celebrate the holidays in or out of season.

Can’t do a family picnic on Independence Day or make a loving pilgrimage to the cemetery on Memorial Day? Picnics are fun at any time, and there is no off-season for sharing memories of a deceased loved one. I know a family who combines the two observances. They pick a summertime date when the most folks can be there, and follow a trip to a cemetery with a picnic at a neighboring park.

Anytime your whole family can get together is a reason for giving thanks. Who says Thanksgiving has to be celebrated only in November? Turkey tastes good all year round; it can even be done on a grill in the extreme off-season. In anticipation, toss an extra bag or two of cranberries into the freezer during their short growing season. Use your imagination and feel free to be creative!

Create holiday traditions that bridge the miles.
Shared traditions are what make family holidays special. Pass on the how-to for those traditions as early as possible. Knowing that they are being carried on helps create a feeling of togetherness even across a great distance.

Julia, for example, recalls a special braided bread her grandmother always made for one holiday. “Fortunately, Gram taught me how to make it when I was still a teenager,” she says. “Before she died, she forgot how to shape it; then she forgot where to find the right flour. I never make it without remembering how dear she was to me. And I never serve it without telling some story about her.”

Create new traditions as well. I know a couple who always made an occasion out of carving Halloween pumpkins with their children. When their first grandchild was born in a faraway state, they sent the new parents a pumpkin-carving kit—something they continue to do every October.

When my own adult kids found their budgets strapped by a growing troop of nieces and nephews, they decided not to buy gifts for all their siblings. Instead, they drew names and set down a few rules. One was a price cap; another required that at least part of the gift be handmade. Some of their productions were as simple as potato-print gift wrap, a sweatshirt proclaiming the “World’s Greatest Aunt” in fabric marker, and a framed collage of autumn leaves. More skilled fingers made a Christmas tree skirt, a replica of a cereal box with an avid skier’s picture on it, and a shadow box holding a tee for a golfer’s someday hole-in-one ball. Such gifts evoke frequent thoughts of the giver.

Practice new ways of being together.
When I was a child half a century ago, long distance phone calls were such an expensive luxury that they were most often used to convey urgent bad news. Now it is possible to chat with distant relatives without putting a dent in the bank balance. In our family, bargain rates often mean a birthday call that sometimes includes reading a favorite passage from Dr. Seuss’ Happy Birthday to You: “If you hadn’t been born, then you might be a wasn’t. And a wasn’t doesn’t have any fun. No he doesn’t.”

The telephone isn’t the only means of communication, of course. Computers, tablets and cell phones are used to instantly whiz both messages, pictures and video across town, cross country, even between continents. Families set up websites where family and friends can post the latest photos for all to see. With all this technology, distant loved ones can be part of any family celebration and have the pleasure of watching loved ones open their gifts.

If you and your budget are more comfortable with simpler gadgets, take a cue from one grandmother. When her distant grandchild was very small, she bought him a toddler’s sturdy tape recorder. Every month she recorded herself reading children’s books, and sent the tapes across the miles. Her daughter did the rest: got the books from the library and sat the child on her lap to turn the pages and see the pictures.

The “World’s Greatest Aunt,” for whom my son made a sweatshirt, invented a game for a beginning reader. She began a story with a word that started with a and sent it to her niece. The child wrote a sentence with a word beginning with b, and sent it back—and so on down the alphabet.

Remember when your bedtime prayers as a child ended with a list of requests beginning with the words, “God bless ….”? Cultivate the same habit as an adult. Of course you pray for family members near and far when problems arise. (Certainly those folks in the armed services rate constant prayers when they are in a dangerous place.) But you can also carry them into God’s presence when things are going well.

Praying for someone who is far away is a lot like reaching out with a warm hug. Rejoice with God in the unique creation this person is; give thanks that he or she is part of your life. And pray for the healing of any wounds you may have inflicted on each other.

Take heart.
The simple truth is that physical distance is not the worst thing that can come between family members. Face it: Some folks can gather in the same room and still be miles apart. The bonds that hold us, and make our holiday celebrations so special, are formed of generous love, the willingness to forgive without holding grudges, acceptance of one another’s weaknesses, and delight in one another’s strengths. May these be the bonds that unite you and your loved ones—even at a distance—for many holiday seasons to come.