Finding holiday gratitude in the time of COVID

Chairs at the table may be missing, and some for good, but a focus on remembering the good times, the good things, can get us through the holidays.

I searched for the Christmas stocking.

The felt red and green stocking appliqued with Santa’s jolly face. The one marked Emma

I pulled it from the plastic bin among a pile of other stockings tagged with Mom, Dad and Nora stickers. 

Because of the coronavirus, this stocking will spend the holiday season in Denver and not Maine. 

It was strange to retrieve the stocking so early, weeks before Thanksgiving. 

But everything is strange this holiday season.

For the first time in 22 years, my daughter will not be home for Christmas. Emma planned to fly back to Maine from Denver, where she started an accounting job. But in late October she learned her firm must catch up on year-end inventory due to COVID shutdowns.

“I can’t come home for Christmas,” she said.

Tears fell and my chest ached as I thought about her empty chair at the Thanksgiving table, our traditions of making Christmas cookies, decorating the tree and opening presents Christmas morning. 

“It’s hard,” Emma said. “It will be my first Thanksgiving and Christmas without you guys.” 

I cannot imagine Emma absent over the holidays, alone in a Denver apartment 2,200 miles away. But COVID-19 has created a new reality. 

With more than 11 million cases nationally and nearly 255,000 COVID deaths, thousands of people will be home alone for the holidays. There will be many empty seats at the table during Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hannukah and Kwanzaa. 

Like the mom in the “Home Alone” movie, I sought a solution, a Hail Mary bid to get Emma home for the holidays. Desperate to be reunited with her eight-year-old son Kevin, mistakenly left behind on a family holiday trip to Paris, Mrs. McCallister screams at an airline customer service agent who tells her no flights are available. “This is Christmas! The season of perpetual hope! If I have to sell everything I own. If I have to sell my soul to the devil himself, I am going to get home to my son!” 

Christmas 2019: Barbara Walsh with her family, Emma, Paco, Nora and Eric.

I consider buying plane tickets for my family — husband Eric, daughter Nora and I, surprising Emma on Christmas Eve. But this is a pandemic holiday. There are no miraculous final scenes. I cannot snag a ride with a ragtag band of polka-playing musicians to Denver like the “Home Alone” mom. So, I make other plans to FaceTime Emma on Thanksgiving, to virtually connect as we bake Christmas cookies, decorate our trees and open presents — nine states between us.

When I shared my thoughts with Emma, she fell silent. She thought about Christmases past as she and her younger sister Nora hung ornaments on the tree, sang holiday songs and made faces at mom’s relentless camera.

“I forgot about decorating the tree,” she said.

Fighting back tears, I turned to the internet for more ideas, typing “How to get through the holidays with COVID.” The search rendered several stories about creating new traditions and relying on virtual visits with loved ones.

In one article, Jane Timmons-Mitchell, a psychologist who teaches at Case Western Reserve, one of Ohio’s top-ranked universities, told the health and wellness publication Elemental, “Gratitude is a great concept to address holiday blahs. If you are able, contribute to charity for those less fortunate in gratitude.”

Christmas 1962: Author Barbara Walsh (left) and two of her sisters. 

With millions out of work, there are several food pantries and organizations to contribute to in gratitude, and I have much to be thankful for.

Images of Christmases past flood my memory. Gathering beneath the tree with my sisters, the six of us ripping open presents as my mother and father watched. Emma and Nora squealing with joy as they hugged dolls, stuffed animals and shiny new toys.

Unlike soldiers who have spent the holidays away from home, or doctors and nurses working Christmas Day, I have always been with my family. Every single Christmas.

Despite the pandemic, the threat of more lockdowns and surging COVID cases, there is much to be grateful for. Though my family cannot gather, we will not grieve over the holidays like thousands who will mourn loved ones lost to COVID. 

As the November wind rattled the windows, I filled a box with Emma’s red stocking, small gifts, a few Christmas ornaments and decorations. I tucked a “Do not look inside until Christmas Day!” note inside the stocking, and I began dreaming of next year, a COVID-free holiday season when we can all be together again.


Barbara A. Walsh

Barbara A. Walsh is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for newspapers in Ireland, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Florida. While working at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, Walsh reported on first-degree killer William Horton Jr. and Massachusetts’ flawed prison-furlough system. The series changed in-state sentencing and furlough laws and won a 1988 Pulitzer Prize. During her career at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Barbara wrote in-depth series on several social issues in Maine. Many of her stories changed laws and earned national, state and regional awards.
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