This Christmas in COVID History

Well readers, I hope you all had a Merry Christmas and a happy new year. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, I hope December 25 was just a day of rest from the routine of life. As usual, school kept me too busy to write, but it was a successful and mostly enjoyable learning experience. I say mostly enjoyable because this semester, I got a little complacent in my preparation. Even in my undergraduate years (2008-2012) electronic books were not as ubiquitous as they are today, so as an undergraduate, I would literally head to the bookstore to buy my Spring semester books for Disability Services to scan as soon as I had finished Fall semester exams, and in the summer, my parents and I always took a day in June to come to campus and buy books so that hopefully, Disability Services would have sufficient time to get them scanned in time for the Fall semester. While Bookshare is still my first choice of sources for books, Apple devices, and even the Kindle have become more accessible, so if a book is not available on Bookshare, I have other options. Thinking that by 2021, every book under the sun would be in electronic format, I didn’t start searching for the required textbooks for this semester’s seminary courses until just a couple weeks before the start of class. To my surprise, none of the textbooks for my course on the History of the Expansion of Christianity were available anywhere electronically. Neither of the books for my Biblical Theology and Interpretation course were available on Bookshare either, but one was available as a PDF download from Intervarsity Press, and the other book, a Bible dictionary was only available on the Google Play store. Books from the Google Play Store can be read on my BrailleNote which is based on Android software, but turning the page is a three-step process, after which sometimes I had forgotten the last words of the previous page, so this made reading assignments from the Bible dictionary a little annoying. A few weeks into the semester, I actually decided that this book was easier to just listen to using Voiceover on my iPad where I could quickly turn pages by holding down the alt, and right-arrow keys. As for the textbooks for the History of the Expansion of Christianity, I submitted requests to Bookshare for these books. I lucked out in that the textbook upon which a couple of written reflection assignments were based was ready in time for the start of class, and the professor graciously gave me substitute books I could read in the event the others did not arrive in time. Fortunately, the other books arrived about a month into the semester, but it was annoying not to have all the books from the beginning, and one book in particular was especially in-depth, and I might have had a richer experience had it arrived in time for the start of the semester, but actually, just because the course is over doesn’t mean I still couldn’t read the early chapters any time. Despite this bumpy start, I earned an A in this course, and in the Biblical Theology course.

 

You would think I would have learned my lesson after last semester and gone back to my undergraduate diligence, enquiring into Spring semester textbooks immediately upon finishing Fall final exams. But the Biblical Theology exam was exhausting as it entailed several essay questions, and I about had a heart attack when after spending a good hour on the final two longest essay questions, our WiFi went out and I heard the Voiceover on my iPad say that autosave had failed. Fortunately, I was able to stop the page from loading, so I did not lose the screen where I had written my answers. My parents rubbed my shoulders and helped me take a deep breath as they reset our WiFi modem, and I copied and pasted my answers into a Microsoft Word file so that if they were lost, at least I wouldn’t have to rewrite them. My parents ultimately had to reset the WiFi twice, so a three-and-a-half hour test ended up being more like a four-hour test as a result. But at 7:30 on Friday December 10, the WiFi was restored and I successfully submitted this exam. This incident had me thanking God that as a person with a disability, I was allowed extra time for tests! After this exam, I was in no mood to think about next semester. Technically, this past Monday morning was the ninth day of Christmas, but for all practical purposes in our culture, Christmas was over, so I found the syllabi listing the textbooks for next semester which starts January 12. But to my relief, my good luck had returned, and every single required textbook was available on Bookshare!

 

After this busy semester, I “needed a little Christmas, right this very minute”, which this year ended up being a lot of Christmas. In a way you could say the theme for this Christmas for our family, and society at large, was “making up for lost time.” The following morning after the brutal test, December 11, my parents and I returned to our pre-pandemic Christmas tree farm. The selection of Christmas trees was a little slim: we found out that because of last summer’s drought, a lot of trees did not survive, and they even had to water trees by hand! But we still found a beautiful fir tree that was a little smaller than usual, but had sturdy branches for Christmas ornaments, which we did not forgo this year. Funny side story: After getting the tree into the stand and watered, my parents and I sat down for lunch and the conversation turned to reflecting on how different and yet delightfully simple last Christmas was. I pointed out that I didn’t even mind that we didn’t decorate the tree last year. “We decorated the tree,” Mom disagreed. “No, remember, you put the lights on, but we just never felt in the mood to put on the ornaments, and the branches were pretty thin anyway,” I said. I am known in my family for my excellent memory for dates and details, so Dad believed me right away, but Mom was sure we decorated the tree, until she found pictures from last Christmas on her phone. But after not holding the sentimental ornaments I made in elementary school for a year, these ornaments in a way felt more precious this year, and my favorite ornaments, the ornaments made of applesauce and cinnamon, smelled a little sweeter this year. The following day, Mom and I were able to return to a tradition that had to be cancelled last year, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Holiday Pops concert! As we have all experienced, the status of the pandemic can change overnight, but I decided to take my chances in September when tickets to this concert went on sale, fearing that given the absence of live Christmas concerts last year, tickets would sell out faster than usual. Sure enough, the day after Thanksgiving, we hear about the Omicron variant which is even more contagious than Delta, which experts said was also unbelievably contagious! But the shows were able to go on, especially because the Bradley Symphony Center required proof of vaccination, and the wearing of masks at all times. The fabulous sound of a live orchestra and chorus was even more special this year. This concert always features a female vocalist, and for the past several years before the pandemic, the female vocalist was Carpathia Jenkins. She had an excellent voice, but this year’s vocalist, Shayna Steele was even better in my opinion. During this life on Earth, I don’t think anything can top the joy of singing Joy to the World with a gym full of choral singers at Saint Olaf’s in 2006, but Shayna Steele’s rendition in which she “took it to church” could come in second place. It was a wonderful end to an extra-special concert, and although the weather was unseasonably warm, Mom and I left this concert filled with Christmas spirit.

 

Then on December 17, my choir performed a Christmas concert, our first concert since the pandemic! The choir board of directors tried to resume choir last February. At that time, most of us, myself included, chose to tune into rehearsal virtually using the Google Meeting software because the vaccine was still hard to come by at that time. (I wasn’t able to get my first dose until March 29). The church where we rehearsed pre-pandemic was still closed at the time, so for those brave souls comfortable with in-person rehearsal, rehearsal was moved to All Saints Church, a church further out in the country in a small community called Whales. To limit the number of people, men and women rehearsed separately: one week, men would rehearse from 7:00-8:00, and women would rehearse 8:00-9:00, and the next week vice versa. Masks were required at all times, and to ensure adequate ventilation which experts believed significantly reduced the risk of virus transmission, the outside doors were propped open, so those who rehearsed in-person rehearsed with their winter coats on! But while I didn’t have to freeze or rehearse in a mask, tuning into rehearsal virtually wasn’t ideal either. Those of us attending virtually could have sang along in theory, but to address the imperfections of background interference we have all become so familiar with, we all had to mute ourselves once rehearsal began, so the director couldn’t hear us to give us feedback. I couldn’t always hear rehearsal either because the WiFi signal at the church was weak and so the rehearsal would cut in and out. By the third such virtual rehearsal, I had become so disappointed with the inadequacy of technology when it came to choir rehearsal, and as a result, so disengaged that I kept dozing off, so I stopped logging in. I don’t think I was alone in this disappointment because it seemed like the attempt fizzled out, and for several months, I didn’t receive a single e-mail update from the choir board. But in September, the board sent out a survey to get an idea of the comfort level for resuming rehearsal and what precautions people would like to see. After reviewing our feedback, the decision was made to resume rehearsals at the church in Whales starting October 19. Masks were required, and although I don’t think the church required the outside doors to be propped open for ventilation this semester, I often rehearsed with my coat on because we had a couple really cold days in November and it seemed like the church turned the heat off during evening hours. But it was so soul-restoring to interact with friends and sing in-person again! I don’t know if everyone in the choir was vaccinated, as vaccination was not required, but my closest friends and I were, and on October 25, I was able to get a booster shot, so I felt as safe as I could reasonably be.

 

The first rehearsal, I wore a generic mask from a package my parents bought at Costco, which are comfortable under normal circumstances, but I found it quite annoying for singing as it would get sucked into my mouth when I needed to open it wide to sing or take a deep breath. But my best friend in the choir discovered there are masks specifically designed for singers. She bought three for herself, her husband and her son who are all in the choir, and she sent me and several other interested choir members a link to the mask she ordered. The mask was around $17, so I have been very careful not to lose it, but it has proven well worth the money, and I have even worn it to a couple concerts where I was just an audience member because it is just generally comfortable. It is a little big for my face, as it goes all the way down over my chin almost touching my neck, and it takes a little futzing every time I put it on to keep it from covering my eyes which the sighted people say makes me look silly. Mom, and my choir friend both suggested altering it, but I worry that the alterations might negate its purpose of comfort for singing and breathing, and its comfort is well worth the little bit of futzing when I put it on. After this concert, I realized I was a little deconditioned because although I walk on the treadmill every day and swim five or six times a month, standing still for over an hour singing requires a special stamina that I hadn’t adequately prepared for, not to mention that when wearing a mask, the choir director told us annunciation was even more essential. But I think the director anticipated this because although he wanted us to stand, there were chairs behind us so we could have sat down if we needed to, an accommodation that was only provided to a couple very elderly singers pre-pandemic. Fortunately, I did not need to utilize the chair, and more importantly I did not pass out, but I was exhausted! The audience was small, but so was the church and Mom said the audience pretty much filled it. Included in the audience were my parents, Grandma, and a friend who lives alone but loves to get out and about and socialize, the type of person who had the most difficult time emotionally during this pandemic. I could tell everyone enjoyed this concert, but was especially happy to see how it seemed to cheer this friend up. For this concert, the director selected the perfect mix of a few classical pieces, many of the old standards, and one silly song called The Twelve Days After Christmas, in which a girl gets into a fight with her “true love.” (This video is not my choir, but I just wanted you to hear the song).

 

Two days later, Mom, this same friend and I returned to the Bradley Symphony Center for Handel’s Messiah. I was aware of this concert, but didn’t think we wanted to spend money on two symphony Christmas concerts, especially since every other year, my choir performs this piece for a free community concert. But it so happened that on December 16, Mom met a member of the Milwaukee Symphony chorus at an exercise class, and she decided that since we didn’t get to go to any concerts last year, we could splurge this year! Mom also thought this would be the perfect Christmas gift for the friend.

 

When we arrived at the theatre and our tickets were scanned, a volunteer noticed that I was blind and asked if I would like a program in Braille! Upon skimming a recent newsletter from Audio & Braille Literacy Enhancement, the organization where I had a paid internship opportunity in 2013, I was aware that this organization produced programs in braille for local events including Milwaukee Symphony concerts, but I didn’t read the article carefully and figured this was something you had to request in advance, as that is usually how it works (understandably, as braille is expensive to produce, so it makes sense that an organization would want to avoid producing braille that would not be utilized). I don’t think anyone thought to provide braille programs for concerts during my childhood, or at least I wasn’t aware of it, so I was accustomed to enjoying concerts without a program. But the volunteer said in the future I could just ask for one, as they would be available for every concert. It was really cool having the full concert experience, reading for myself the biographies of the conductor and soloists while waiting for the lights to dim, and then following along as the orchestra played each movement of Handel’s Messiah. I will be sure to ask for a braille program again in March when Dad bought tickets for a Milwaukee Symphony tribute to Motown music.

 

Handel’s Messiah holds a special place in my heart because it was the last concert my choir performed before the pandemic on March 8, 2020. We didn’t know it would be our last concert at the time. The two previous years I performed this piece, I thoroughly enjoyed it as a beautiful piece of music, but in 2020 more than any other year, performing it felt like a spiritual experience. I found myself paying closer attention to the words the soloists sang, and marveling at how the piece begins with prophecy from Isaiah anticipating the coming of Christ, then celebrates the coming of Christ and then anticipates the future when he will reign forever and we will all be changed. During the pandemic, I downloaded a recording of Handel’s Messiah performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and choir, and found tremendous comfort and joy just listening to it while writing in the early months of the pandemic. Sitting in the audience listening to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra perform this piece again felt like a spiritual experience. While I love the Holiday Pops concert and see nothing wrong with happy songs about sleigh rides and Santa, if I ever could only attend one concert, it occurred to me that I should choose Handel’s Messiah as this piece portrays what Christmas is really all about.

 

Three days later, I got to partake in the Christmas present my parents bought for my grandma, tickets to the Fireside Theatre to see an adapted performance of Holiday Inn. On Monday evening, I requested that we watch the original Bing Crosby movie because I had seen bits and pieces of it over the years, but never sat down to watch the full movie, and thought I would enjoy the play more if I was familiar with the storyline. Mom and I both agreed the Fireside Theatre’s adapted play was much better than the original movie. For one thing, the original movie was, shall we say, a movie of the time, with Bing Crosby performing a scene in Blackface, and the dialog of the Black maid very racist in the way it portrays the Black dialect. In fact, Mom said that at the beginning of the movie, there was a disclaimer warning that there was content in the movie that would be offensive by today’s standards. With multiple gift shops full of junk to clutter up your house, like a stuffed gnome that says “Home sweet gnome” and its discounts for senior bus groups, this theatre’s target audience is people for whom Holiday Inn was released in their heyday, so I was really curious to see if, and to what extent the play would be modernized. To my relief, the Blackface scene, and the disrespectful portrayal of the Black dialect were eliminated. A few other details were changed to make the storyline better too: for example, instead of meeting Linda in a flower shop, in the play, Linda is the former owner of the farmhouse Ted bought at a bargain price, and Linda asks if she can come into collect her belongings as the bank locked her out of the house before she could retrieve everything. For many years, this theatre had a traditional Christmas variety show, and when I was nine years old, my parents took the whole family to see it. This theatre is a dinner theatre, where a banquet dinner is included in the ticket price and served before every show, and I wasn’t fond of the food at that time because I was one of those kids who only liked a few things (chicken nuggets, grilled cheese sandwiches, french fries) and the featured dinner offerings for that show encouraged guests to sample cuisine from other parts of the world. But I remember loving the show itself, and now that I am an adult, I would appreciate the ethnic cuisine more too (as long as it was gluten free of course). But in a way, symbolically speaking, Holiday Inn was the perfect choice for the first Christmas post-pandemic because the Holiday Inn is only open on holidays, so the storyline takes you through all the major holidays of the year, just as in real life, there has been a sense of needing to make up for all the holidays missed during the pandemic. So although it wasn’t exactly a Christmas show, we all thoroughly enjoyed it.

 

I received my second dose of the vaccine on April 20, and experts said that people could call themselves fully vaccinated two weeks after this second dose by which time the body could generate antibodies from the vaccine. So on Mother’s Day, my parents and I decided we felt safe to return to church in-person, and we enjoyed in-person services through May and June. But when the Delta variant emerged, we decided to play it safe and return to virtual church again, especially since, sadly we live in a red-leaning area where many are opposed to the vaccine and to masks. But given that we had the protection of a vaccine this Christmas, we decided to take our chances and attend the Christmas Eve service in-person as we missed this beautiful tradition so much last year. As we expected, my parents and I were in the minority by wearing masks, but to our church’s credit, the leadership strives to be politically neutral, so they had a designated section for people who wish to only sit with people wearing masks. We found this section and given our distance from other people, we felt very safe. The pastor gave a wonderful sermon, one that actually convicted me to the point that I want to elaborate on it for another post in the near future. The message of the sermon is that we will not find true happiness by seeking to change our circumstances, or trying to control everything in life (guilty!). We will only find true happiness by seeking and following Christ.

 

For the evening, we invited our friend over again because we could tell she would have otherwise been alone on Christmas Eve. We had a casual dinner of shrimp cocktail, and some delicious chicken and cranberry meatballs my parents found at Costco.

 

Christmas Day was nontraditional in that my parents and I decided to give each other our gifts in advance of Christmas. My parents gave me an updated iPhone. As I have written about in the past, I love trusty rusty things, and would have been perfectly content to continue using the iPhone 5. But unfortunately, capitalism forces you to upgrade when the vast majority of apps no longer work, and I realized using such an old phone was probably a security risk too as Apple ended support for the iPhone 5, and Apple’s updates often include security upgrades to try and stay ahead of sophisticated hackers. My mom considered my purchase of the tickets for the Holiday Pops concert her Christmas gift, but I got her a token gift of beautifully decorated truffles I ordered online from a local candy store. From the same store, I ordered my dad a giant peanut butter pie. I imagined it would be like the pie we used to buy sometimes at Baker Square which had a chocolate-infused crust topped with a creamy peanut butter filling. But it was actually a giant peanut butter cup. I had a great time teasing Dad though because he always says he likes the french style of enjoying a small portion of something really decadent, as opposed to a healthier dessert that doesn’t fully satisfy the sweet tooth.

 

“This is delicious,” Dad told me a couple days after Christmas, “But don’t get this for me again. It’s just too much, unless you can get one that is one twentieth the size.”

“It only comes in one size, but here’s an idea,” I said. “Why don’t you just slice it into twenty pieces, freeze them and enjoy for twenty days, you know, like the French probably do.” That’s when the truth came out that he has no willpower!

 

In lieu of Christmas gifts for each other, my parents decided to invest in a wonderful home upgrade. In the lower level of our house is a family room with a fireplace, a fireplace that we never used because it needed some expensive repairs, so my parents were afraid to use it. But this year, my parents decided to hire a company to make the necessary repairs and on December 9, I experienced firsthand the idyllic side of the Laura Ingalls Wilder lifestyle, enjoying the warmth and soothing sound of a crackling fire. Pa didn’t have to chop down trees for firewood because nowadays they have kiln-dried firewood that you can order and have delivered. But Dad ordered so much firewood that we keep it outside and bring in more wood from the pile every couple days, so I can still tease dad by asking, “do we have enough wood for a fire tonight Pa, or do you need to haul more in?” Dad doesn’t know how to play the fiddle either, so when we sit by the fire, we usually engage in the modern-day pleasure of watching television, although on Christmas Eve after dinner, Mom, the friend and I went downstairs and just sat by the fire chatting and laughing for hours, which felt so nostalgic and perfect!

 

Mom also picked out a couple pieces of new furniture because one of the old recliners that was in the family room broke, and Mom wanted more seating for when we have company. Dad and I like to tease Mom about it because it is not the most comfortable, and a couple times, Dad caught her in the one remaining comfortable recliner. But the allure of the fire more than compensates for the uncomfortable couch, and though I am not at all a sports fan, this past Sunday, instead of retreating to my bedroom, I fell asleep on the couch by the fire with the Packer game in the background.

 

Christmas morning was peacefully reminiscent of last year, with no pressure to do anything. I enjoyed a bowl of oatmeal while my parents read the newspaper and had their own breakfast a little later. Then Dad took Grandma to the 10:30am mass at Saint dominics, and then brought her back to our house for a ham dinner, although I had leftover rotisserie chicken from a giant chicken my parents brought home from Costco two days earlier because I am still diligent about avoiding red meat. When my sister and her husband came home for Thanksgiving, they made a really interesting and delicious recipe for brussels sprouts spiced up with pomegranate seeds, mint leaves, and a little maple syrup. Mom forgot to get the exact recipe from them, and didn’t want to bother them for it, but she found a similar recipe online which was almost as delicious. Mom said at Thanksgiving it would be a perfect dish to serve at Christmas because the pomegranate and mint gave it a pretty presentation of red and green, Christmas colors.

 

My brother and his wife arrived around 6:00 that evening, and we enjoyed chatting with them over more shrimp and meatballs, but had a larger Christmas dinner and exchanged gifts with them the following day. They went home on Monday morning December 27, and on December 29, my parents and I went to Indiana to visit Granny who now sadly lives in a nursing home. But I could tell she was thrilled to see us and that she loved the spa set I picked out for her from Bath & Body Works, complete with lavender shower gel, lotion and a spray to spruce up sheets or pillows. On the way home, we stopped to visit my Aunt Nancy who had foot surgery recently and wasn’t ready to travel yet.

 

New Year’s Eve was wonderfully peaceful. We enjoyed our Christmas Eve meatballs and shrimp so much we decided to repeat it. Costco didn’t have the chicken cranberry meatballs, but they had pineapple chicken meatballs from the same company which weren’t quite as good as the cranberry, but still delicious in my opinion. After dinner, we watched Respect, the movie about the life of Aretha Franklin by the fire. Given the pandemic and everything that has been going on, we decided to have fun and do all the superstitious things that are supposed to bring good luck, health and happiness in the new year. Mom burned the bayberry candle Aunt Nancy gives us every year, and the next day Mom made black-eyed peas. Mom also taught me a new superstition, that you are supposed to stand on your right foot at the stroke of midnight to start the new year off on the right foot, except that Mom and I both have terrible balance and almost fell on our faces! But at the stroke of midnight, we were both laughing, so I would think that in itself should bring good luck this upcoming year. On New Year’s Day, Mom and I watched the Rose Parade which we were thrilled to see wasn’t cancelled again, despite the Omicron surge. In the afternoon, we played two games of Scrabble. Mom won the first one, and I won the second.

 

Of course as I have written about in the past, the reality is that we live in a broken world, even on Christmas, and while I definitely felt more Christmas spirit this year with the return of Christmas concerts, the in-person Christmas Eve service, and the ability to gather with family and friends again, we were reminded that the pandemic isn’t quite behind us when we found out my sister’s husband got pretty sick with Omicron despite being fully vaccinated and boosted. Fortunately, we were able to see my sister and her husband at Thanksgiving, but my sister was really looking forward to going to California to visit her husband’s family, and then she planned to meet up with my oldest brother in Portland, Oregon whom she hadn’t seen since Thanksgiving 2019. But this trip had to be cancelled. Given that I am an introvert, I thought I had been handling the isolation of the pandemic well, but in December, I struggled with a bout of depression, which made me moody and caused me to lash out at my parents a few times. After each time, I would immediately feel guilty which only made me feel worse. But my parents were incredibly supportive, and Mom suspected a major contributing factor to it is simply the isolation from my peers, so I really hope that this upcoming year, I can reconnect with peers in a formal Bible study group or something, but even something as simple as inviting old friends over for board games would be mutually restorative. With the new year, which symbolizes a fresh start, I have felt more hopeful about the future. I also found myself thinking about my emotions in light of the Christmas Eve sermon, and some valuable insight I gained in the Spiritual Formation course I took last Spring. I plan to get more specific about this experience in my next post because while I am overall an optimistic person, I agree with the sentiment of a former pastor at our church who was very open about his struggle with depression, who said “it’s okay not to be okay,” and by being honest about our feelings, we can support one another, and will probably find that we are not alone. But for now, I will close by saying that despite the constant hum, the constant reminder that we live in a broken world, even during the Christmas season, Handel’s Messiah reminded me that because Jesus came, and is coming again, all depression and disappointment with this current world is temporary, and all of the events of this Christmas, from the Holiday Pops Concert, to just the mundane pleasure of sitting by the fire with my parents reminded me that I am blessed.

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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