Silent night: Scenes of a pandemic Christmas

The holidays, for many, are about creating a sense of wonder, excitement and expectation. But this year, the usual crowds of shoppers and sightseers are not there.

A season that promises — in songs and with cheerful decorations — to suspend our worries, if only momentarily, cannot stop reality from crashing in.

The New York Times asked photographers across the United States to capture how things look different this holiday season. From Detroit to midtown Manhattan, the rituals go on. But much is missing.

Every year, while braving the crowds and jammed parking lots at the mall, I vow that the next holiday season will be different: I’ll spend less time rushing and more time with my family. And yet, one harried holiday seems to blur with the next, like an annual form of amnesia set off by the sweet smell of freshly cut Christmas trees.

But this year, that wish may have come true. Like the part in It’s a Wonderful Life, when George Bailey is granted his request that he had never been born, the coronavirus pandemic is giving us a holiday season in which many of our hectic traditions have been brought to a halt.

Office parties are cancelled. Malls are operating with reduced hours and staffing. Restaurant tables are roped off with police tape. On Black Friday, 50 per cent fewer people, by one estimate, shopped in stores than they did in 2019. Santa Claus performers during holiday events, those who are actually at the stores, are not fielding wish lists from children. Hark, the Herald Angels Sing? Not this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised people not to sing during holiday gatherings. Really, the agency prefers that we not gather at all.

The holidays, for many people, are about creating a sense of cheer and wonder with bright lights and special gifts. But the sight of a Santa in a surgical mask instantly brings reality crashing back in.

Last week, I found myself browsing through the store at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, a place normally thronged with shoppers. But I was one of only a handful of customers. Part of me revelled in not being rushed, or feeling claustrophobic from all the bag-toting masses. I had the undivided attention of the upbeat sales staff. But even after finding what I wanted, I left deflated.

It was a reminder that a nearly empty store two weeks before Christmas was not a good thing for anyone.

Consumerism is still alive and well, of course. The National Retail Federation expects that holiday sales could increase more this year than they did in 2019, despite widespread unemployment and another deadly wave of infections.

But much more shopping is happening online. An estimated 3 billion packages — about 10 parcels for every man, woman and child in the United States — will be shipped this season. That’s 800 million more than last year, according to ShipMatrix, which provides technology to the shipping industry.

E-commerce has proved safe and reliable, two of the most important qualities during the pandemic. But it is also a little lonely.

If the vaccines are successful, life in many public spaces will be far more normal next December. It should be safer to gather again in places of worship, restaurants and along parade routes.

But even as the health risks subside, there will still be fewer people in stores, now that online shopping has truly taken hold. Many stores that shut down during the lockdowns will stay closed.

Written by: Michael Corkery
Photographs by: Philip Cheung, Sylvia Jarrus, Dina Litovsky and Tristan Spinski

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