Tiny Miracles: Winter Holidays in a Year Like No Other

The holidays have definitely been weird this year. But it’s not all bad.

Loudoun had its first ever menorah car parade for Hanukkah last week, and families around the county are celebrating Christmas in innovative ways, with driveway gift exchanges and cousin Zooms. Throughout this most unusual holiday season, the running themes have been slowing down, getting creative and celebrating small joys.

“It’s definitely a very different year,” said Rabbi Chaim Cohen, founder of Chabad of Loudoun County. “Holiday is all about coming together. It’s about spending time with family. It’s about literally people congregating.

“From Passover and throughout the other holidays, the high holidays—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—and Sukkot, it’s all been adjusted,” he said. “But I think it’s important that we constantly adjust and figure out how we can thrive in the current times. … It seems like there’s a light at the end of this tunnel with the vaccine … that’s exciting. But regardless, it’s important—and it’s a very maybe Hanukkah message—to prevail, to push, to figure it out.”

For Cohen, that meant working with members to organize Chabad of Loudoun’s first-ever menorah car parade. Cohen says menorah parades are a tradition in the international Chabad community, which focuses on outreach. In the past, he’s been focused on in-person gatherings for the Loudoun Chabad community. But as in other spheres, 2020 was the year to shake things up. Chabad of Loudoun’s inaugural menorah car parade took to the streets Dec. 13, the fourth night of Hanukkah.

In a normal year, Cohen and his wife Yehudis, who launched Chabad of Loudoun in 2018, would have hosted out of town family members for Hanukkah. This year, the couple focused on their broader Chabad community with everything from Zoom cocoa bomb-making classes to delivering special Hanukkah packages to members’ doorsteps.

For Cohen, with hopeful news on the horizon as frontline workers in Loudoun received COVID vaccinations during the eight days of Hanukkah last week. And the holiday’s celebration of perseverance and faith is especially resonant this year.

“There are times in life where we’re stuck—there’s no way it’s going to work out. It looks like it’s doomsday,” Cohen said. “Hanukkah’s message is an inspiration to say, ‘Hey there is a God out there. Miracles happen.’ Sometimes they’re very tiny miracles.”

For many Loudouners, celebrating Christmas is also a very different experience this year, with gatherings shrinking and traditions changing. Parents at Woodgrove High School organized a drive-through holiday breakfast for seniors in the Franklin Park parking lot near Purcellville, preserving a cherished tradition for a graduating class that has missed milestone after milestone.

And for two Lovettsville moms, chronic health conditions have meant giving up a lot this year. But they’re finding creative ways to celebrate and find hope in the holiday season.

In a normal year, Annee Olden and her family would celebrate with her husband’s family in Montgomery County, MD, with several stops on Christmas Day. But Olden’s autoimmune conditions and compromised immunity have led her to dramatically limit activities and social events this year, especially as COVID cases rise this fall.

“It’s lonely. We miss seeing everybody. We haven’t seen family since March,” she said. “We just want to get back to normal life.”

For Christmas, her family will replicate their modified approach to Thanksgiving: Olden’s husband Stephen will drop off pies to his mom in Rockville and pick up family favorite sides, along with a front porch gift swap. On Christmas day, the family plans a Zoom call with Stephen’s family, including a breakout room for the kids so they can celebrate with beloved cousins, along with a Zoom meet with Annee’s family in New England. And while there’s a sense of loss, there’s also a silver lining in the idea of keeping things low-key.

“It’s going to be nice to not have to rush around all day,” Olden said. “Like everything else, this year, it’s kind of had us slow down.”

Olden will also miss the New Year’s Eve party the couple has hosted for the past decade. The couple has done Zoom game nights with friends this year and will probably organize a virtual celebration to ring in 2021.

“We’re very social in general. It’s been a very hard year,” she said. “I’m still in denial that we can’t do [New Year’s Eve]. We’ve had it every year since we moved here. … It’s such a fun way to ring in the new year”

Christmas usually means a huge, festive overnight party for Shannon Wilt and her tight-knit extended family, with multiple generations and tons of cousins. But her son’s chronic respiratory condition has meant a hard core 10-month lockdown for her family. And as she and her family discussed Christmas, protecting the seniors in the mix took priority.

“You want to see everybody, but you don’t want to take the risk,” she said. “We take it all very seriously.”

For Christmas, that’s meant changing things up and creating fun in different ways. Last Saturday, Wilt and her three kids decorated their car, put on their Santa hats and made an all-day road trip across Northern Virginia from their Lovettsville home to Winchester to Fairfax and Prince William counties to drop off gifts from a distance and spread some Christmas cheer.

“We’ve been quarantining so hard, I thought it would be nice to get out of the house and go do something,” Wilt said. “We won’t get to hang out with anybody, but I thought dropping things on the doorstep and decorating the car would be fun—just seeing everyone—even if it’s at the end of the driveway”

The family will also be celebrating with Zoom meetups for the cousins, taking photos in matching holiday T-shirts and having a special photo blanket with those photos made for the grandparents.

Wilt says that while things won’t likely get back to semi-normal for her family until late spring or summer, she felt a sense of hope and “huge relief” when a frontline healthcare worker friend was vaccinated last week.

“I feel like I can see the end in sight now,” she said. “Our biggest thing right now is we just don’t want to let our guard down too soon. We’re so close.”

During a time of challenges, Rabbi Cohen sees the secular new year as a good time for people of all faiths to reflect and take stock.

“Whenever we hit a milestone or a cycle ending and a cycle starting, it’s a time that we have to sit down with a pen and paper and jot down what happened in the last 12 months and what we would like for the next 12 months,” Cohen said. “We need these milestones and days on the calendar that make us think. That’s how we grow in our own journeys.”

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