Bay Area luminaries weigh in on their 2020 holiday rituals

Following tradition can offer calmness amid chaos


My family and I are arbitrary followers of rituals. Every other year or so, we get a Christmas tree, decorate it haphazardly and buy gifts under $20 for each other. Many of these gifts lie discarded as soon as they are opened. I gather them up, stuff them into a cupboard, consigning them to be wrapped and re-placed beneath another hastily bought fir tree a year or two down the road. New Year’s Day is just another holiday, a day of recovering from late night consumptions of sulfite and histamine-rich wines. On Diwali day, a late-fall/early-winter Hindu festival, we sometimes light little tea lamps and place them outside our front door, without much ceremony. Halloween comes and goes, without remark. Even birthdays go without gifts, often. “What do you need that you don’t already have?” I respond to my children’s accusations of unfairness. “My love for you doesn’t need to be wrapped,” I have argued, to their vocal disdain.

Despite my cavalier attitude toward important occasions, I recognize the relevance of rituals in our schedule driven lives. Rituals make tradition. They signal that we are at a milestone; that this one day is not the same as every other day. Rituals take away the unpredictability of our reactions.

A video presentation on rituals by #TheSchoolofLife — a group of psychologists, philosophers and writers — defines the role of rituals in modern society as vital; serving to protect emotions, “to which we are sincerely inclined, but which, without a degree of fabrication and structure, we might be too distracted and undisciplined to make time for.”

Can rituals allay some of the grievances of 2020? Probably not. But from time immemorial, humans have observed rituals.

I asked a few wonderful people about their rituals around the holidays and if it has changed this year. These are their responses.

San Francisco resident Roberto Lovato is the author of “Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in America,” released in September 2020, which has been hailed as an Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year, a New York Times Editors’ Pick, and a Newsweek 25 Best Fall Books. I read the book recently, awed by the depth and intensity of Lovato’s understanding of trauma and gang violence and how it sits square within the corridor of the immigration debate between the United States and Central America.

“The ritual my family observes is having a house packed with friends and family of different countries, ethnic backgrounds and faiths. For the last several decades, we’ve had dozens of people pack the house to eat chumpe, traditional Salvadoran turkey.” This time around, the number of people Lovato expects will be greatly reduced. “But our spirit will be that of a barbarian army marching on the capitol of the COVID empire we’ve faced down this year,” he wrote, with his trademark flourish.

Reviving the disappearing practice of letter writing, Jennifer Adams Bunkers, a mom of six kids and founder of TruKid, a skincare and hair care product line for children, has each member of her family — all eight members — write every other member of the family a personally addressed Christmas letter in acknowledgment of the memories they made that year. Letters are written before Mass each year. Upon returning home, the family then sit down to read all 56 letters out aloud.

“Dear Rowan, Thanks for being the only person willing to get into my car,” wrote 18-year-old Georgia to Rowan, the youngest in the family, in 2019. And the year before, Rowan’s letter to Georgia addressed that same topic. “I love that you let me go with you on car rides even though we can never find a parking spot. I hope I grow up to be as smart as you because obviously you’re the only hope in the family.”

According to Bunkers, the letters are a snapshot of her children’s lives through the years and a chronicle of their relationships.

Jennifer Adams Bunkers and her family write each other Christmas letters and read them out loud. (Courtesy photo)

Jennifer Adams Bunkers and her family write each other Christmas letters and read them out loud. (Courtesy photo)

Author Ann Kim describes her debut novel “A Good Family” as a “juicy page turner.” The book has been reviewed by book critic Maureen Corrigan in the Washington Post as “a lively suspense diversion that provides the eternally welcome assurance that nobody has it all, at least not forever.”

Kim’s family includes her husband, and two sons, who are home for the holidays. Since COVID-19 became a reality, Kim hasn’t seen her extended family.

Their holiday rituals revolve around food, Kim wrote. “[F]rying up a slew of latkes on the first night of Hanukkah (we’re not Jewish but we love Jewish food; matzoh ball soup and brisket are also family favorites), baking so many Christmas cookies that they take up every bit of kitchen counter space (although not for long — they are usually gobbled up within days), slurping down steaming bowls of Korean rice cake soup with dumplings (duk mandoo kuk) on New Year’s Day.”

These rituals aren’t changing this year, Kim said. “If anything, we’re embracing them more fully than ever, just as we’re savoring every moment we can be together.”

Most of my adult life, I’ve been wary of rituals, largely because of their prescriptive detail. However, in times of stress, rituals can become prescriptions for calmness amid chaos.

“We have very few collective appointments with collective emotions,” commented the host of #TheSchoolofLife video. Perhaps that’s the way to think about it.

This year, I’ve strung up our holiday lights as a reminder that I am part of a collective army, as Lovato put it. I am part of the force marching toward a healthy beginning.

Happy New Year!

I love to hear from you. Write to me at Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan.

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