One Christmas long ago when I was a college student far from my family, I couldn’t afford to fly home. I had a roommate who for different reasons wasn’t going home either, and she and I made plans to go to a Christmas Eve party and on Christmas Day, cross-country ski and make a big dinner. Except my roommate fought with the guy she liked and drank way too much at the party, was sick most of the night and felt too sad and awful even to get out of bed on Christmas. She stayed in her room with the door shut, and I spent Christmas completely and totally alone.

I opened a present my mom had sent and then went for a long, long walk. The day was cold and gray, but in the houses I passed, lights were on and people were celebrating. I stopped and hid behind trees and bushes to watch.

This is not the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Little Match Girl,” about lighting matches to stay warm and imagining a happy home. I had a happy home, I’d had many happy Christmases, and I wasn’t sad spying on other people’s holidays. When would I ever get the chance again? Watching strangers open presents, or sit around the table, or in one house, bow their heads in prayer was fascinating, even fun.

This year many people I know will be passing Dec. 25 alone. Because of the coronavirus, they aren’t flying anywhere. Children won’t join their parents, best friends will stay apart, grandparents will hole up, perhaps with a caregiver who shares their bubble but still isn’t family or friend. This year it’s “Home Alone, the Pandemic Version.”

My single sister in Massachusetts is grateful to have her dog. She might cook Otis something special — he’s a big eater. Her daughters are remaining in California. A friend whose kids are also not coming home might repeat her Thanksgiving Day and head to the beach to meet another friend who is on her own. They will take a socially distant walk and picnic 10 feet apart. Another friend plans to stay in her pajamas and stream old holiday movies — and some new Hallmark offerings — that she’s too embarrassed to watch with anyone else. For a writer friend, it will be a day like any other: work on his new book, read the newspaper and write some postcards to voters in Georgia. My 94-year-old aunt will order Chinese food and have it delivered. She told me she’s going to splurge and get everything she wants. She’ll have Christmas dinner for a week.

The people I’ve talked to are looking at Christmas as a challenge or a puzzle to figure out. They’re wondering how to make the day special without getting together with friends and family. It will be unusual, but not necessarily unhappy.

Unfortunately, others will ignore the COVID-19 transmission rate and gather anyway, virus be damned. I understand about confirmation bias and the belief that it won’t happen to me or my mother or my best friend. It’s tempting to forget about facts and statistics. But when you get sick, don’t expect the nurse to be sympathetic after she spent Christmas alone because she works in the ER and she had to quarantine on Dec. 25 to keep her family safe. Or maybe she spent Christmas taking care of dying patients.

I love the holidays. I love the decorations, the music, the cookies. I usually have 25 to 30 people at my house for a potluck Christmas dinner. But it’s one day. A big day, granted, but there have to be ways to celebrate that don’t risk your life and the lives of people you love.

Maybe you don’t even love those people, you just always spend big holidays together. Wouldn’t you hate to catch COVID-19 from your brother-in-law’s slacker nephew? Is the same food, the same family drama, the same polite small talk worth the risk? I think of the man I read about in this newspaper who said from his hospital bed he was sorry he’d met friends at a restaurant. He told us this disease hurts. It’s painful. And then he died.

I distinctly remember my one Christmas alone. After my walk, I went home and made popcorn and watched a Christmas movie. When my roommate eventually emerged, we ate toast for Christmas dinner. It was delicious. Most of us have years of holiday memories and if we’re honest they blend together, one year to the next. I have never forgotten peeking into those windows or the taste of that toast.

Think of it this way: This year we will each be making a story to tell. Next year, if we stay healthy and safe, we can ask each other, “What did you do for Christmas 2020?”

Diana Wagman is an award-winning writer of six novels.

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