The table arrived three weeks before Christmas. It’s a bit of a monster, seating 12. It belonged to my parents, but after they downsized they didn’t have room for it. When my wife and I made the opposite move, into a bigger house, it was consigned to us, part of a truckload of family jetsam. Victorian armchairs in mild disrepair, unidentifiable photos, army uniforms, an absurd flock of lamp shades, a box of ornaments.
We were happy to have it all. We needed the furniture. After the initial excitement of opening crates and putting the table in place, however, I felt something like mourning.
Part of this is just Covid blues. That table, usually packed at the holidays, will seat just four this year. My twins are bereft that there will be no grandparents, cousins or friends this time round. We are overcompensating with excessive decoration — an immense tree, lights everywhere, tinsel, wreaths, a gingerbread house. It all looks great, and is not enough.
There is also a spooky, Ghost-of-Christmas-Past aspect to the situation. The kids, at 11, are at the brink of adolescence. Their store of magical holiday memories has been stocked; it’s iPhones now, not Santa. Something important is over, and some days it feels like we missed it as it rushed past.
The arrival of the table made me feel a generation older too. My parents had the table built and their initials are carved into the apron at the head and foot (“Monogramming,” quipped my wife, “a WASP biological imperative”). Symbolically, their seats at the table were the axes around which the family spun. The table is here now; does that put my wife and I at the head of the family? Sounds like a job for someone else. At nearly 50, I’d like to remain a member of the younger generation a good while longer.
The future arrives on its own schedule, though. Christmas, when I was a kid, meant spending time with my mother’s three older brothers and their families. Henry died a few years ago; Sandy and Roger followed him this year. It’s an especially cruel year for our family to be kept apart.
But New York is heading into another hard shutdown, and we’ll probably play by the rules. The people who are casting public health officials as the Grinch seem to me to be living in an alien world, where Covid is a mathematical abstraction or political litmus test. I have a 97-year-old father. My big plan is for Christmas 2020 to be the one where I didn’t kill my dad by accident.
The protests of the put-the-Christ-back-in-Christmas crowd aside, we all know what the season really marks: the longest night of the year and the hope that the sun will return. Hence the lights and the greenery. This year, though, the darkness will be especially profound, and give way only slowly — even for myself and my family, who are among the luckiest.
There ought to be an upside to all of this. If this were a TV special, we would be just about to discover the True Meaning Of Christmas. But the Whos of Whoville will not join hands and sing this year. They will be stuck on Zoom, like the rest of us.
A pandemic Christmas, like getting older, offers few compensations. We will settle for a few lessons learnt, meagre though they may be. And what I’m learning is not that there is an inner spirit to the holiday that nothing can diminish. It’s the opposite: that some things, when they are taken away, cannot be replaced.
This is bigger than Christmas, of course. Journalists tend to have an independent or even cynical frame of mind. We like the profession in part for the autonomy it provides. Secretly, we see ourselves as solitary adventurers, like our colleagues Tintin and Clark Kent. Over the past 10 months, however, I’ve discovered that without the camaraderie of the newsroom, there is little to savour in the work. It becomes typing.
There has been a lot of talk about how Covid has shown us the potential of communication technology. It has done more to show us its limits, and the holidays will hammer that home.
So let’s give up on this irredeemably broken year and look forward to next December. I’m a Christmas maximalist from here on out, if I’m so lucky. Bigger tree, more lights, more gifts, more food. The table will groan with plenty, and be surrounded by real, live human beings.
Robert Armstrong is the FT’s US financial editor
Email Robert at email@example.com
Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first