Christmas at Jacci Harris’ home in Freeport is usually an exuberant affair.
On any given year, she hosts upward of 60 relatives for the occasion: Getting the whole family together for the holidays is a tradition that goes back more than six decades, with everyone wearing red, singing carols and awaiting a visit from "Santa," who hands out gifts to the kids.
That won’t happen this year.
Like many Long Islanders, the Harrises have canceled their Yuletide gathering because of coronavirus concerns. And relatives won’t be the only absence in their home next week: Many of the decorations will also be missing.
"Because I’m not hosting as many people, it’s not necessary," said Harris, a retired educator. "The decoration part was never the focus of our celebration, the focus was more family and getting together. I’ll still do it, but it won’t be the same."
Harris isn’t the only one giving her decorations a second thought. With the pandemic restricting gatherings, some Long Islanders are opting out of their usual over-the-top lights and ornaments, while others say a year filled with uncertainty and change has given their adornments more significance.
Decorations are the last thing on Karen Schwartz’s mind this season; instead, she’s focused on giving back to her community through various toy, food and toiletry collections.
"It’s been a rough year. It’s very upsetting every night when we watch the news and see so many people at risk of getting sick and dying," said the Great Neck resident. "We know that a lot of people are struggling. A lot of people don’t have good medical coverage, people who had COVID could be left with devastating symptoms and can’t work. It’s been a very stressful year."
'Not the same holiday'
Candace Aguirre-Holley has taken up a similar mentality. The Hempstead resident usually adorns both her office and home with trees and wreaths, preparing to welcome family for lavish holiday dinners. But after losing friends to COVID-19 and seeing others struggle financially, she’s putting her energy into helping those in need.
The community activist has been helping to organize food, clothing and toy drives throughout the season and on Dec. 20, will be participating in the Hempstead Chamber of Commerce’s toy and food distribution. And while she left her decorations in storage, she did order a pre-decorated pop-up tree.
"It’s not the same holiday, even though we continue to treat it the same way," said Aguirre-Holley. "We see the necessity. We see a lot of families struggling, they can’t even afford food. Right now it’s better to give. Most of us are so grateful we still have a paycheck, we still have income."
While Janet Moskos normally lines her shelves with Santas and snowmen, she’s had to make some adjustments due to the eager arms of her 15-month-old grandson, whom she watches twice a week.
Her fragile decorations remain in their boxes, but she’s kept her Hicksville home festive with some recently purchased antique-looking items, mixed in with a few sentimental pieces. She’s also put up a small, skinny tree, albeit with only a fraction of her usual decorations, as her new kitten, "has already knocked off a quarter of the tree."
Normalcy and comfort
And while there are fewer decorations around, that doesn’t make them less significant.
"It’s been a crazy and challenging year…[the decorations] make me happy," Moskos said.
Decorations can offer a level of normalcy and comfort — two things that are particularly needed this year, said Craig Johnson, associate professor of psychology and chair of the psychology department at Hofstra University.
"One of the things people enjoy so much is that tradition, the tradition of putting up the decorations, having them there, the colors," Johnson said. "It reminds people of good times in the past. It could be quite comforting to people to have that tradition and have that going after a tough stretch."
And with family gatherings, vacations, parties and more canceled, decorating is perhaps one of the few traditions that has endured.
For the Savitsky family, of Huntington, it was also a way to infuse their home with some cheer.
"Usually it drives me crazy when you go into a store and you have Christmas stuff out after Halloween," Liz Savitsky said. "But everyone can’t wait for this year to be over and wants happiness. I said let’s start as early as we can. Let’s celebrate for the heck of celebrating."
Having the decorations up — which includes a second tree this year — has also provided some much-needed refreshment to her home, where her husband and two children work and do a hybrid model for school.
"Getting the tree up helped break the monotony of the four walls we’re in. It’s something different to look at," Savitsky said. "We always used to just put the Christmas tree lights on at night, now they’re on all day long."
For Lynbrook’s Amanda and Dan Norton, decorations have served as a distraction from the coronavirus, as well as a way to get their 3-year-old excited for Christmas. While they put out relatively the same amount of decorations as they have in the past, this year saw them dragging the box down from the attic two weeks earlier.
"It makes things feel normal," said Dan, a video producer who has been working at home since the lockdown began. "Even though we don’t have the normal stuff like Christmas parties and family gatherings, there’s some sense of normalcy."
Having their decorations up earlier has not only allowed the Nortons more time to enjoy their Christmas tree and Nativity scene, but it’s also ushering in optimistic wishes for the year ahead.
"You need Christmas joy earlier because it’s such a crazy year. It makes it feel like the year is coming to an end," said Amanda, a social worker. "Let’s make the end of 2020 a celebration. It’s an uplifting twist."