Faith Gong: Why we are celebrating

“Daddy, don’t forget to pick up some cupcakes at the store, okay?”

My husband, who was heading out the door to run his usual Saturday morning errands, turned to look questioningly at our 9-year-old daughter. “What are the cupcakes for?”

“For Pip’s birthday party!”

“Wait…sorry…um…. Who is Pip?”

“You know,” she said, undaunted. “Pip is my little china dog figure.”

My poor husband: You could almost see him thinking, this is not what I signed up for, as he spluttered, “Your china dog…? NO. I’m not going to get cupcakes for a china…. Oh, okay, fine.”

My husband wasn’t aware of It, but Pip’s birthday had been in the planning stages for nearly a week. My daughter had chosen a date, made posters to invite her sisters, and designed teeny-tiny little invitations for the other animal figures in our house. While my husband was at the store buying cupcakes, my daughters made a little “Happy Birthday” banner for Pip, blew up some balloons, and created an animal-figure-sized dance floor.

Later that afternoon, my daughters celebrated Pip the china dog’s birthday with store-bought cupcakes.

We are approaching the one-year anniversary of the moment when the COVID-19 pandemic changed our lives. This was a year none of us expected to have, nor was the experience uniform: Restrictions were added, lifted, and added again. Some suffered horrific loss, others were inconvenienced. Fear, frustration, and hope danced crazily through our emotional landscapes.

As I look back over the past year — still at close range — it struck me that if someone in the future were to ask me how our family spent the pandemic, one of my first responses would be: “We celebrated more.”

Odd, but true. The weekend of Pip’s birthday was particularly packed with celebrations: Pip had store-bought cupcakes because I’d just made sticky rice cake and almond cookies for our Chinese New Year celebration the night before, and was decorating a chocolate cake for our Valentine’s Day celebration the next day.

Not all weekends in our house are like this, but I find that celebrations have meant so much more to our family this year. We look for excuses to celebrate (like a china dog’s made-up birthday), and we’ve ramped up our usual celebrations. When there’s nothing else to celebrate, my daughters will throw impromptu dance parties. The six weeks between New Year’s Day and Chinese New Year were the longest we’d gone without either a family birthday or a holiday in quite some time, so having three parties back-to-back felt about right.

Not only have parties taken on an added significance in our home, but I’ve found myself looking for ways to turn the everyday into a celebration of sorts. Until COVID, I was not a candles-and-flowers person: Candles and flowers don’t last, and they serve no purpose other than temporary beauty, so they seemed like poor investments.

Now, even temporary beauty feels essential. I light a candle first thing in the morning, when I have quiet time to think, read, and pray before the kids wake up. I light another candle on our counter for breakfast, hoping that it will make the difficult transition of waking up feel a little more special. I light candles every night on our dinner table as a way of celebrating the close of another day. Fresh flowers are more challenging to keep stocked during Vermont winters, but I try to have a vase or two decorating our common spaces. And “teatime” has become a daily ritual, preferably with something sweet baked by my daughters or myself.

The wistful thing about these celebrations is that they are shared only by our immediate family. In the past, pre-COVID, we might have fewer parties, but we’d share them with other families. So we’ve tried to bring a little bit of our own celebrating to others. We treat these as stealth operations: The kids and I will pack into the minivan with decorated cartons of eggs (COVID hasn’t affected our hens’ production), homemade beeswax candles and Christmas ginger cookies, or handmade Valentines and Chinese almond cookies. Then we’ll drive around town, depositing these treats at the front doors of a list of “victims” we’ve compiled.

“Step on it! Step on it!” my masked crew screams as they race back to the van from another successful goodie drop.

We have been the recipients of treats dropped at our own front door as well, and these little acts of love can turn the day into a mini celebration.

As I’ve observed the importance that these celebrations have taken on in our home over the past year, I’ve questioned whether we were giving in to avoidance and denial. Does throwing a party in the midst of a pandemic ignore the suffering of illness, death, lost income? Lighting a candle or placing a vase of flowers on the table creates a small spot of beauty, but it does nothing to help with the larger ugliness. Are we just chasing after meaningless pleasures?

Then I came across an article on the Psychology Today website (“Why You Should Celebrate Everything,” by Polly Campbell, posted on December 2, 2015) that makes this case for celebrations: “[M]oments of celebration make us pause and be mindful, and that boosts our well-being….[E]ven mini-celebrations…make it easier to manage the daily challenges that cause major stress.” The article cites research by social psychologist Fred Bryant, who has found that the act of “savoring” — being aware of your feelings during positive events (i.e. celebrating) — can lead to stronger relationships, improved mental and physical health, and more creative problem solving.

I am not responsible for finding a cure for COVID, creating jobs, or developing public health guidelines; these things are all crucial, but they are not my job. The job right in front of me is to walk the seven people in our house through this pandemic in such a way as to best preserve our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health, and — to the extent that it’s safe — to do the same for the neighbors in our community. Based on the research, celebrating seems to be a pretty good method of accomplishing this.

Our family is not gliding through this difficult time on a sea of flowers, candles, and tea parties. We have had tears, shouting, disappointment, frustration, and anxiety — adults and children alike. But celebrating both the large and the small things is one way we can fight the darkness. There is death and despair out there, yes, but there are also songs for dancing, candles on cupcakes, and china dogs and the 9-year-old girls who love them. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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