The typical Aikins family Christmas was less Norman Rockwell painting than Viking banquet.
All 70 of them – sometimes more – would pile into a rented lodge in Northern Ontario, drink heroic quantities of wine, serve big platters of meat, and yell, laugh and sing until staggering back to their bunk beds.
The tight-knit Catholic clan was built on 11 siblings, many of whom had large broods of their own. Even when they decided to upgrade the party venue to a condo ballroom, the Aikinses made sure to have a rollicking time, highlighted by one of the 11, Jenny, belting out Amazing Grace, “really off-key, and not letting anyone else join in,” said her sister Anne Marie, with a laugh.
This year was different. None of the usual was COVID-safe, to say the least. So the siblings argued. Should they find a workaround? Should they call the whole thing off? Was there a safe way to get the gang back together for Christmas?
Canadians across the country are having the same debate, by phone, text and Zoom, about how to celebrate the holidays. Public health authorities in many parts are urging residents not to hold gatherings between households. In Quebec, such get togethers can earn you a $1,000 fine. “Stay home,” Toronto Mayor John Tory said, simply.
But the urge to be close to loved ones this time of year hasn’t gone anywhere, especially after months of social distancing. The competing claims of pandemic safety and emotional need have led to tearful phone calls and even bad blood in families where members hold different notions of what’s responsible. Parents guilt-tripping anxious children, shouting matches between brothers and sisters, boyfriends and girlfriends parting ways to avoid “cross-Christmasing” (as Ottawa resident Alex MacDonald called it) – these are a few of the awkward and sometimes painful dynamics that have played out this strange Yuletide season.
Gino Calabrese lives in Vaughan, Ont., a suburb of Toronto, with his wife and two children. They have been the sticklers of the family – the ones saying “No” – since Thanksgiving. Normally he would gather with his parents and sister for Christmas – sometimes an aunt and cousin as well – but this year he is staying home with immediate family.
His kids are in different schools, and one is in daycare, so he’s “getting exposure from all sides,” he said. It’s not that he’s worried about catching COVID-19 over Christmas so much as giving it to elderly relatives, such as his parents, who are in their late 60s and early 70s.
“We’re worried about being the spreaders,” he said. “I know if anyone should be staying home it’s me.”
He has friends who have been shunned by family for their decision to sit out Christmas, and missing the festivities does sting, he said, but the choice comes down to taking personal responsibility for stopping the spread of a virus that could seriously interrupt his family’s life. “I don’t expect people to become hermits to help me keep my kids in school.” Instead, he’s making himself the hermit.
There has been pressure on Mr. Calabrese to relent, but nothing “oppressive.” Instead, other members of the family are gathering without him. He doesn’t want to know details. “We’re not keeping track of who’s getting together – we know people are, but we’re just out of that conversation.”
Canadians of other faiths have been down this road before. The Jewish holidays of Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and, more recently, Hanukkah, have come and gone since the start of the pandemic. Michael Mostyn, chief executive of B’nai Brith Canada, said many members of his community have had to resist the tug of family pressure to gather. Raising the emotional toll of isolation, religious strictures prevented some Orthodox Jews from using technology to connect with far-flung relatives during High Holy Days.
“It’s been very hard, very hard,” Mr. Mostyn said. “You make the most of it, and know this is going to be a memory.”
Still, whatever the common lot, each family has had to grapple with its own form of holiday angst. Marc Fowler was putting a lot of stock into Christmas this year. His mother died last December after a “short and intense cancer,” leaving the family devastated and unable to do much more than exchange gift cards.
After a sombre gathering, they all parted ways with a resolution to have a proper Christmas in 2020, full of new traditions that would make their mom proud. Then the pandemic hit. Now, Mr. Fowler has decided to spend Christmas in his downtown Toronto condo, where he lives alone, instead of joining his father, brother and two nephews in Hamilton, where they live together.
Mr. Fowler’s grandparents think he’s making a mistake by staying home. The well-meaning pushback on his plans has worn on him. “It is gentle, and caring, and constant, and something I have to continuously refuse in a gentle and caring way, which is exhausting,” he said.
The Aikinses resolved their holiday dilemma, but not without heartache. Traditionally, their big family Christmas takes place two weeks before the 25th, to allow each pod their own smaller celebration at home, so negotiations began months ago.
Some siblings live in areas of the country that were relatively untouched by COVID earlier in the year, so they were more gung-ho about proceeding as usual. One brother would say, “I don’t know anyone with COVID.” A sister with strong Catholic faith held out hope that gathering would be possible. It often fell to Anne Marie, who lives in Toronto and works as a spokesperson for the regional transit authority Metrolinx, to act as the heavy.
Finally, they settled on a Zoom gathering. Everyone agreed it would have been easier with their super-organized brother Paul, who died suddenly last year, and more fun with Jenny, who had Down syndrome and died earlier this year. It was still nice to see everyone, catch up and, yes, drink wine together. But it took them many long, hard conversations to get there, said Anne Marie. “And a lot of tears.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.