Celebrating Family Holidays Alone Doesn’t Have To Be Lonely

When the sun moves north across the celestial equator, marking the first day of Spring, Iranian Americans do more than crack open a couple windows and a bottle of rosé. We flock to the homes of our elders to celebrate Nowruz, the largest national holiday in Iran. But this year, with my parents, grandparents, aunts, and cousins all social distancing miles away from each other, I feared that celebrating the family holiday alone would involve a lot less dancing to Googosh and a lot more crying over the phone to my mom.

Founded by the Zoroastrians thousands of years ago, Nowruz lasts 13 days and nights, involves a myriad of puzzling, ancient traditions — setting up a table of seven objects that begin with the letter S (haftsin), jumping over an actual fire, gorging on smoked fish and herbed rice. The vernal equinox is our New Year, a chance to recalibrate and take stock of our lives. But I knew that this year would be my very first time celebrating Nowruz without my family (and the only time, god willing, I’d celebrate confined to a house with my partner). And since kin is such a fundamental part of the holidays, I worried toasting to our health over spotty wifi would feel bleak, like a shoulder pat in place of a much-needed hug.

So, on the evening of March 19, I resolved to compartmentalize all of my anxiety — that my at-risk parents would catch coronavirus, that my grandparents wouldn’t understand my decision to shelter in place outside of New York — and instead focus my energy on positivity and in the spirit of Nowruz. I would do the new year justice, goddammit. And I would do it with panache.

On the morning of Eid, I woke up feeling reenergized. Traditionally, practitioners are meant to don newly crafted or purchased clothing for the occasion. But when I left my apartment to join my partner at his parents’ house, I had hastily packed a chaotic bag containing mostly sweats, still naively believing I’d only be there for a week. The newest item of clothing I had brought with me was a T-shirt handed out at my freshman year orientation. So, I dipped into my partner’s closet and borrowed one of his thrifted T-shirts — the closest thing I could find to "something new."

Next, I practiced another coveted Nowruz custom: cleaning the house. As part of my coronavirus anxiety, and I’d already grown accustomed to scrubbing surfaces as readily as I wash my hands (while singing "Happy Birthday" to boot). But this round of vacuuming hit differently — I was sparked by purpose, washing away the sins of my previous year with each dish. As my knuckles grew coarse and my floor, a slipping hazard, I became entirely present. The coronavirus anxiety that had been building up in the back my brain felt as distant as my family. COVID-19? Never met her!

Another cornerstone of the Persian tradition is Eidi, gifts or money that family elders give directly to children. In following with the spirit of Eidi, I donated what I could to coronavirus relief funds. I checked in with friends and family, especially those who I knew were at risk of losing their jobs or being evicted because of coronavirus-related shutdowns. Although Eidi is usually distributed between family members, taking it one step further felt like an appropriate way to honor our customs while acknowledging the long-term consequences of the pandemic.

At 4:00 p.m., it was time for an early Nowruz dinner — the most crucial part of any New Year celebration. I had sent out a Zoom meeting invite to my parents and grandparents in New York, my aunt and cousins in Iran, and my sister, who goes to school in Scotland, two days in advance. Of course, a couple hours before we were scheduled to meet, I received three different messages from family members, asking, "Vhat ees Zoom?" prompting us to switch to FaceTime.

Blasting Persian pop music, I put on a full-face of makeup, poured myself a supersized glass of wine, and dialed into my first virtual holiday dinner.

"Eide Shoma Mobarak!" my grandfather sang.

And just like that, I started to sob. All of the anxious parts of me that I’d tucked away like stray strands of hair came instantly undone. The sound of my 94-year-old grandfather’s voice, echoing from the kitchen like a soundstage, the vision of my 89-year-old grandma, all made-up with lipstick and hair gel despite just having received surgery a mere week ago, took apart the contents of my brain and scrambled them. I felt guilty for abandoning them, even if I was doing so for their safety. They simultaneously made me want to selfishly see them and reminded me why I was social distancing in the first place.

The rest of the day was spent wiping away tears and refreshing my internet connection. Tears as my mother and aunt argued primary politics while my 20-year-old sister rolled her eyes (the screen delay made it 10x funnier). Tears of frustration as my grandmother stared back at me blankly, unable to hear me through the computer, even with the assistance of her hearing aid. Then back to joy when her eyes finally lit up at the sight of my partner joining me on screen. I went to sleep that night feeling a little less lonely, but hyperaware of the fact that I was, in fact, alone.

Celebrating Nowruz while socially distant wasn’t the fresh start I’d hoped it would be. I didn’t turn a new page in my quarantine diaries, feeling more hopeful about the future of our planet and less anxious about the fate of millions of people around the globe, but I think that’s OK.

We typically depend on our parents, our siblings to love us when we can find it in ourselves. I turn to mine, in times of crisis, for hope and stability. But perhaps the spirit of the holidays isn’t so much applying pressure to be more "on," but rather, withdrawing pressure to derive purpose from a pandemic when we’re feeling off. Our families are meant to let go of the choices we made in the past year, and accept us as we are in the new, without judgment. Why is that so hard for us to do for ourselves?

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