Holiday Pitch: Reflecting on Covid and Connection

by Raemon11 min read22nd Apr 202014 comments

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Somewhere on the edge of a Pareto frontier somewhere, I decided to make one of my shticks “founding holidays that fill important gaps in the 21st century." Founding a holiday is not normally the best solution to a problem, but it sometimes is, and I’ve spent ~10 years thinking about why/when/how to do it.

Recently, I awoke in the middle of the night with a thought: 

There should be a holiday designed, from the ground up, to be telepresent. Once a year, you should gather – not with the family who are geographically close, but those who are emotionally central to you, no matter the distance.

What should you gather to celebrate about? One possible answer is “your connection and closeness is reason enough. You don’t need an excuse.” But I think holidays work best when they do provide an excuse – some event to commemorate, around which the whole thing coalesces.

Two seconds later, I thought: geez, the coronavirus is just… actually a mythic level event, which is affecting all of humanity. We are forced to endure hardship, to rework our lives, to coordinate in challenging times… and to find new ways to remain connected despite physical isolation. The story of COVID-19 is actually comparable to the events that most holidays are founded to commemorate. It’s also a very weird event, which gives a holiday lots of little narrative hooks for unique things that help it stand out.

I think a holiday focused on that would have a lot of narrative power, and it would fill an actual important need. I think there are concrete reasons people may benefit from a telepresent holiday right now, but I also predict that coronavirus will have long-lasting impacts that will make it reasonable to commemorate in future years (Although the narrative may need to change over time to account for new facts coming to light. We’re living through history right now)

It’s the 21st century, and we should be expecting holidays and traditions to adapt to changing technology. There should be at least one holiday where “skyping in to see your family” is not awkwardly bolted on afterwards, but deeply interwoven into the central traditions.

Seder in Quarantine

Last week I participated in an online Seder – a Jewish holiday where traditionally, family gather for a ceremonial dinner and read from an ancient text, telling the story of how their ancestors were liberated from Egypt. Some Jewish friends of mine had written a “rationalist” version of the text.

This year, due to Covid-19 it was necessary to hold the Seder remotely – people made their own dinner, assembled their own plate of ritually symbolic food, and read from a custom booklet over Zoom. We weren’t alone – my facebook feed had other friends organizing online seders. The New Yorker featured this cartoon, showcasing families coming together over videochat:

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

Rationalist Seder was exactly what I needed – it brought a bunch of people together and gave me a sense of normalcy/connection that felt a bit stronger than the previous ad-hoc Zoom Parties I’d attended during quarantine. 

And the nature of Seder leant itself well to a video call – the reading is “turn based”, so people don’t accidentally interrupt each other the way they sometimes do on teleconference. After the reading, we each brought our own dinner over to our laptops and ate together and chatted for a bit. There were a few hiccups, but it fit together surprisingly effectively. 

Because it wasn’t bound by geography, there were friends from Seattle, Boston, Berkeley, and other places.

I wanted to tell all my friends “hey! Are you feeling lonely and disconnected? Try a Seder!”... but, well, I’m not Jewish, and most people aren’t Jewish, and… the story of Seder really deeply assumes “you are a part of Jewish history, or at least the people hosting the event are.” 

So this wasn’t really a scalable solution. But it was a proof-of-concept.

Possible Pillars of a Covid Holiday

This is all in the “brainstorming” phase, but after thinking ~5 hours, my best guesses for the central constraints here are:

Mechanical Pillars

  1. Everyone is on a video call. I might even advocate that people who share a house split into separate rooms, so that everyone can be un-muted and wear a headset, avoiding echo and background noise. (I also think it works as a symbolic action – in future years, it’ll be commemorating a time when many people were isolated)
  2. There’s a central text, everyone takes turns reading through. Some people may care most about the intellectual content of that text, others might mostly see it as an excuse to get together and the main purpose is socializing afterwards. This seems fine. But even for “basically-just-want-to-socialize” people, I think having the text gives a sense of purpose to the socialization.

    The text may evolve over time, or different people might create versions that fit their needs. But I think there can be commonalities across versions.
  3. People make themselves dinner, using ingredients with a long shelf life.

Other traditions may turn out to be good ideas, but I’m pretty sure these three things will make for a solid foundation.

Thematic Pillars

Three interwoven themes would be Preparedness, Resilience, and Connection.

  1. Preparedness. A century ago, Spanish flu infected a third of the world’s population. We know what pandemics are, and we know roughly how to prepare. But it’s easy for disasters to fade from living memory. 

    One purpose of holidays is to remember things that are important, but easy to forget. I think the story of Covid is important both for remembering pandemics-in-particular, and for generally thinking in advance about rare-but-disastrous events.
     
  2. Resilience. Across the world, I see many people screwing up, often disastrously. But I also see a tremendous display of people figuring out how to respond. 

    I see a fractal pattern where, at every level (international, national, individual cities/states/provinces, and local communities and households), folk are saying “Geez. We need to respond to this. I need to make sure my people are safe. I want to make sure I can help.”
     
  3. Connection. After making sure their families were safe, people went one-level-up the Needs Hierarchy and asked “How can I make sure I stay connected with friends and family, in this challenging, isolated time?”

    And… I think there was something important going on here that predated coronavirus. I think there’s been a vague sense of unease about thee last century, where rapidly changing technology has transformed a lot of social norms. It’s not always clear when this was for-the-better, and when it’s been for-the-worse. And even changes that were for-the-better can still be locally disruptive.

Coronavirus might be something of an inflection point: the point where the dominant social narrative shifts from “technology keeps changing in ways that are hard to keep up with and might be subtly bad” to “we can take ownership over changing technology and decide, on purpose, what sort of social connection we want in the 21st century.”

The fact that young and old people have all been forced to adapt together makes me more optimistic about this being a shared shift.

Global Scale?

Previous holidays I’ve worked on were focused on one particular community with a shared worldview. Something I feel excited about here is that I think this is a moment when a large fraction of humanity is experiencing the same hardships, and working on the same problems. And the conflict is “Human vs Nature”, rather than “Human vs Human”, which has the potential for a sense of unity.

But there are some obvious things to worry about here:

  • Partisan Politics
  • Localization

Partisan Politics

A central aspect of the coronavirus story is “people were often unprepared, and often didn’t handle it well – especially at first.” I think an easy, accidentally bad outcome to have here is for people with different opinions about Who Screwed Up Worse to end up fighting a lot. (Or, for the overall holiday to end up having more of a partisan slant than I think is ideal) 

I can imagine stereotypical “Thanksgiving Arguments” (where Aunt Alice and Uncle Bob drunkenly yell about which politicians suck most) being dialed up to 11 here, and accidentally officially enshrined into the holiday.

I think this might actually turn out to be a dealbreaker for the version of this Holiday Plan where it tries to go global, rather than be a weird niche holiday for weird niche people.

A related failure mode would be to focus on overly-specific beliefs/worldviews/solutions. This could be bad for two reasons: not everyone agrees on exact solutions or best practices, and getting into the weeds may be unproductive.

My first guess for how to alleviate that problem is to build into the narrative text “Various people made many mistakes. It is important to hold people accountable for mistakes, and to do better next time. But this holiday is not about that. This is about the struggles we went through together, and heroism we displayed that we hopefully can agree on.”

Localization (and Globalization)

I live in America. In California in particular. My experience of what coronavirus means is shaped by my national and local government response, and my local culture. 

I assume people in China, or Singapore, or Italy, or India, each have very different experiences of what coronavirus was about, what lessons to learn, what exact hardships they endured (or in some cases didn’t) and how they responded.

In general, I think it’s better when holidays are Specific. Don’t try to tell a vague story that isn’t really exciting to anyone. Tell a specific story that you deeply believe in, that you think is worth celebrating every year. Maybe only a small number of people will also believe in that story, but if the story is Good and True, more people will come to believe it in, and your cultural artifact will have a stronger core.

It so happens in this case, there is a story that is quite specific, while being much broader in scale than usual.

For the immediate future, my guess is that the target audience for this holiday should be “People who underwent self-isolaiton in response to coronavirus, or know many people who did.” This does not mean everyone – I think there might be underdeveloped nations with high population densities where the dominant thing was not quarantine, but crumbling infrastructure and economic collapse, and an appropriate response was not quarantine.

I think that scope is narrow enough to draw focus, while still being global in scale.

Jim Babcock’s Petrov Day ceremony (another Seder-inspired holiday), draws a lot of power from it’s global scale, finding quotes from people across the world during the Cold War. It’s probably still filtered through an American perspective, but I think it showcases how to assemble a narrative from different viewpoints. 

My guess is that the initial “Proof of Concept” text for a Covid Holiday should aim to be similar (with perhaps an even greater focus on what people in different places experienced, using direct quotes where possible).

Later, if this thing actually took off, I would expect people to adapt the text to be more relevant to them.

Quality Writing

Rationalist Solstice and Petrov Day each took a couple years to  get their footing IMO. In each case, it mattered a lot that eventually someone wrote a centerpiece story that was highly polished, resonant, and meaningful. Each of those holidays underwent a transition in my mind, from “a neat thing to do with friends” to “Actually A Meaningful Highlight of My Year.”

I’m confident that Covid can support such stories, but not sure they can be found or written soon enough to provide a text this year. I do trust that in the longterm it’s a quite solvable problem tho.

How to handle Connection

Somewhat weird digression:

The Story of the Desert Ancestors

There’s a fantasy series (I’m deliberately avoiding naming it for spoilers, and may be misremembering details), where the protagonist meets a civilization of “barbarians” that live in the desert. They live in small tribes, but sometimes they come together for larger festivals. During those times, sometimes a ceremony is conducted where someone is welcomed as an adult. 

That person stands up, and says their name. Then they say the name of their mother. And then their mother’s mother. And mother’s mother’s mother.

Whenever they get to a name where someone else in the room has the same ancestor, that person stands up and states that ancestor’s name as well. 

Soon, this means that their immediate family is standing up with them, chanting names backwards in time. Then, more distant cousins stand as well.

It ends with every member of their entire civilization standing, chanting the names of their earliest common ancestors.

At some point in the story, they encounter a foreign “savage pigmy” character. There’s a nearby race of people that the desert civilization is sometimes at war with. They don’t speak the same language. It’s not clear whether they’re even the same species.

But one member of that other race gets captured by the protagonist’s tribe. He is injured, and ends up living with them and proving his worth.

Eventually, he is inducted into the tribe. The ceremony is awkward. He stands up alone, and nervously speaks the name of his name, and his mother’s, and grandmothers. Despite being a different culture, he too has memorized the list of his ancestors.

He works backwards in time, dozens of generations. Until suddenly, he hits a name, and someone else in the hall sits bolt-upright, surprised. That person stands up, uncertain, but then says the name too.

Soon, that person’s family is also standing, chanting names backwards in time. Then more people join. And finally, the entire tribe stands together, the newcomer included, stating the names of the distant mothers they all share.

That was a beautiful idea to me. It was a powerful example of a ritual that made me go “Man, I wish I could be part of something like that.

21st Century Social Structures

I bring this up, not because I think this is directly relevant, but to highlight the sort of feeling that I’d like to aspire to with the telepresence and connection aspects of this holiday.

I don’t have great ideas for how to capture that feeling, given our existing culture.

It used to be that people all lived in close geographic areas. You didn’t have that many options about who your friends were, or who your family was, or where you worked, or what your traditions were. This created a set of constraints on how to survive, and build a culture, and find meaning.

In the past couple centuries, this began changing. People move cities in chase of employment or romantic prospects. Longterm multigenerational social networks are harder to support. By now, at least in the West, atomic individualism is quite strong, and technology rapidly changes. 

Bowling Alone was written 20 years ago, and documents how in America, community involvement declined between the 50s and the 90s, across most metrics. I don’t know for sure how the past 2 decades have changed that, but I still have a sense of “many people haven’t quite figured out what kind of social structures they want in the 21st century.”

(Notably, I expect countries to vary on this dimension. My understanding is that China, particularly relevant here, is still particularly collectivist, although I don’t know much about the details. I expect different cultures to have different needs here. But I expect enough people to have this problem that it’s worth thinking about, through the lens of a telepresent holiday)

What seems significant to me is that telepresence lends itself to strengthening longterm ties. Maybe, as we move to new cities, we can cultivate stronger ties with the people we’re leaving physically behind.

How many people do you invite?

A question that comes up immediately, if you remove the geographic constraint (as well as the “people have to fit around one dinner table” constraint), is “okay, how many people do you actually invite?”

One original motivator for me here was realizing that my family used to celebrate Christmas All Together, but as people moved farther away it was harder for everyone to get together. And then thinking “maybe we might want to actually get All Together over Zoom?”

But, I wouldn’t want more than 25-30 people all at once. And whether I’m holding the event “for family” or “for friends”, it’s not clear where I’d want to draw the line – sooner or later you have to exclude someone who I’m actually fairly close with.

It’s also fairly common in holidays to have a space open for neighbors, or friends-of-guests. I think this actually serves an important role of giving people some incidental exposure to each other, and for people who don’t have as many friends to have an opportunity to get closer to people. But it creates a bit of awkwardness around “well, you invite random guest Carol, who you don’t even know that well, but you didn’t invite George, who you’re pretty good friends with [but, George happened to be in your top 100 favorite people instead of top 20].”

I’m unsure what to do about this

One (Insufficient) Guess

I haven’t come up with anything yet that feels as powerful to me as the story of the Desert Civilization Ancestors, nor that really addresses the “who to invite?” problem. But here is a stab at a connection-focused tradition:

Have one person host the holiday. They choose a smallish number of people that they want to deliberately cultivate longterm connection with. 

Those people each invite ~two other people, with some eye for compatibility with who was in the first-order invite list.

The idea is not that all these people are going to be close friends forever. But they are choosing to share a moment in time, reflecting on how they fit into each other’s longterm lives. 

The first phase of the event focuses on The Story of Covid (this is useful to ease people into the experience without having to immediately force a feeling of intimacy). In the the second phase (possibly after eating dinner), people take turns selecting 1 or 2 people in the group, and talking about why they invited that person, and what that person means to them.

I’m not sure how rigorous to be about it, but I think it makes sense if the first person to get welcomed is the person with the fewest social ties to the group, and for the final person to get welcomed is the original host.

Why this guess seems insufficient

There’s a lot I like about the above, but it suffers from a core problem of “actually, many people seem to have nowhere near enough default connection already established to really be able to do the above.”

Most “small dinner” holidays I’ve celebrated (at least with friends) had a large number of people who didn’t initially know each other. Nonetheless, over time, I came to value them, and I now consider many of them to be something-like-family to me.

So I think there’s something important to actually have a social structure for “everyone is invited”.

Meanwhile, an alternate problem is: “Jumpstarting Intimacy is Dangerous.”

Sometimes it falls flat, or just feels a bit awkward. Other times, people who try to cultivate too much intimacy end up feeling betrayed. (I have been personally responsible for one such betrayal, which I deeply regret, and wish I had not put myself in a position where I had to decide what to do with someone’s vulnerable information).

So by now I expressly disendorse “create an environment where people feel inclined to escalate intimacy dramatically.” (Though I do think creating an environment where people are given the opportunity to escalate it by ~1 notch is fine).

Tying this All Together

Whew. That was a lot of thoughts. In quick review, I think:

  1. The story of humanity and coronavirus is a mythic level event. We’re still living through history and I don’t quite know how things will turn out. But I’m fairly confident it will be a story worth reflecting on for decades to come.
  2. Independent of the previous point, the time is ripe for a holiday focusing explicitly on telepresence and connection.
  3. Mechanically, it could focus on Video Calls, Turn-Based Reading or Sharing, and Dinner Made Of Long Shelf Life Ingredients.
  4. Thematically, it could focus on Preparedness, Resilience, and Connection.
  5. People can dial up or down individual themes, or adapt the text, to fit the things that are important to them.
  6. I think it should deliberately avoid partisan politics to the extent that is possible (while not being unopinionated on the higher level narrative)

There’s a lot of unsolved problems remaining and work to be done. I will be honest – I’m not 100% sure I’ll have the time needed to do this justice. 

For right now, I am curious whether this resonates with people. If I did a ton of writing (and collecting writing), logistical work, etc, is this something you can imagine yourself wanting?

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