Constable: COVID alters tradition, but can't dim holiday joy

  • Instead of looking out a frost-covered window onto our snowy backyard, our family broke tradition by spending this Christmas in a condo on a beach in Akumal, Mexico. Will, Burt, Ben, Cheryl and Ross all managed to spend time together in spite of COVID restrictions.

    Instead of looking out a frost-covered window onto our snowy backyard, our family broke tradition by spending this Christmas in a condo on a beach in Akumal, Mexico. Will, Burt, Ben, Cheryl and Ross all managed to spend time together in spite of COVID restrictions. Courtesy of Will Constable

  • Having been awake early on many Christmas mornings when our kids would scamper downstairs to see what Santa left them, I never thought to take a photograph of the sunrise until our family spent this Christmas in Akumal, Mexico.

    Having been awake early on many Christmas mornings when our kids would scamper downstairs to see what Santa left them, I never thought to take a photograph of the sunrise until our family spent this Christmas in Akumal, Mexico. Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

  • It's a Christmas tree. But with white sand instead of snow, 85-degree temperatures and a festive skeleton joining the celebration, it doesn't seem much like the traditional Christmas on our Mexican vacation.

    It's a Christmas tree. But with white sand instead of snow, 85-degree temperatures and a festive skeleton joining the celebration, it doesn't seem much like the traditional Christmas on our Mexican vacation. Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

  • While date palm trees were part of the landscape in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, those of us in the Chicago area traditionally see Nativity scenes surrounded by snow. This lighted depiction of the birth of Jesus was one of the few Christmas decorations in Akumal, Mexico.

    While date palm trees were part of the landscape in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, those of us in the Chicago area traditionally see Nativity scenes surrounded by snow. This lighted depiction of the birth of Jesus was one of the few Christmas decorations in Akumal, Mexico. Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted1/4/2022 5:30 AM

For 63 consecutive years, my Christmas tradition had been either celebrating at home with family and extended family or making pilgrimages to the homes of loved ones for the holidays.

Not this year.

 

My father-in-law, Paul TerHorst, died the week before Christmas 2020 at age 85, and my wife, three sons and I had a modest Christmas together at home last year. We didn't gather with any other loved ones because of the concern for the coronavirus.

By May, with no more grandparents in the mix, the surge of vaccines and the idea that the pandemic was losing its power, my wife had a glorious idea of going someplace warm for Christmas.

Instead of the usual tree and decorations at home in the frigid cold and snow, our immediate family would celebrate together in a condo on the beach in Akumal, Mexico.

We'd snorkel in the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea, visit Mayan ruins, explore the cenotes (ponds with mix of a sea and fresh water) scattered throughout the green jungles of the Yucatán Peninsula, eat where the locals eat, and relax on the beach.

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And we did all of that and more. But not without some pandemic twists.

Cheryl and I, and our 22-year-old son, Will, were flying out on Dec. 23, with our 26-year-old twins, Ross, coming from Los Angeles, and Ben, coming from Boston, arriving on Christmas Eve.

But Ross tested positive for COVID on the Sunday before Christmas.

The guidelines at that time from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called for a 10-day quarantine, so that meant he couldn't join the rest of the family.

Home alone on Christmas, Ross joined us for a Zoom gathering that was barely better than nothing.

Then the CDC changed the travel policy, allowing people to isolate for just five days as long as they wore a mask for another five days.

Already nine days past his initial diagnosis, Ross flew out the next day, wore his mask, got a negative test and joined the fun.

The U.S. State Department in December urged Americans to reconsider travel to Mexico due to COVID-19 and to "exercise increased caution" due to crime when visiting the Quintana Roo state where we stayed.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Mexicans seem better with mask regulations than Americans and Europeans.

When an American couple showed up at the rental car counter without masks, the woman behind the window refused to wait on them until they returned with masks. We generally didn't see local people wearing masks around their chin or even below their noses. Not only did we feel safe, but we found that drivers, shopkeepers, restaurant workers and cenote officials were always helpful, friendly and courteous -- in spite of my mangled attempts at Spanish.

I botched the pronunciation of Chichén Itzá, the spectacular Mayan ruins selected as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, so often that my wife gave me a prompt to remember "Cheech" as in "Cheech and Chong" and the sound I make when saying "pizza." That just meant that I pronounced Chichén Itzá as "Cheechandpizza."

I sometimes mistakenly referred to cenotes as C-notes. Even a simple "buenas noches," which means good night, gets mangled in my mouth so that it sounds as if I'm ordering a large appetizer called "bonus nachos."

Driving a rental car with a manual transmission brought back fond memories of cars that my wife and I drove in our younger years.

And seeing the speedometer hit 80 and being passed by faster cars seemed similar to driving on suburban expressways, even though we were traveling in kilometers instead of miles per hour. Topes, the speed bumps on local roads and expressways, slowed traffic when we needed to be slowed.

We were worried that Will's sudden fever, sore throat and achiness meant that he had COVID -- and that the rest of us would catch it and be denied access to return home. But he tested negative three days in a row according to the COVID tests my wife packed in her luggage.

A doctor, who made a house call to test all of us as required for our return trip, also found us all negative.

We returned home Sunday, put our snorkel masks in storage but kept our N95 face masks. Instead of taking down a Christmas tree and boxing up ornaments, lights and nutcrackers, we did laundry and tried to get sand out of our suitcases.

We got to spend wonderful time with each other, and it was a miraculous Christmas. But next Christmas, when we hope the pandemic is over and life is normal, we'll probably have one of those traditional holidays with siblings, cousins and other loved ones in someplace cold. And that, too, will be magical.

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