Home (and nowhere else) for the holidays!

We’re nearly done with the annus horribilis that is 2020 and can look forward to slow positive changes in 2021. Center director Jeffrey Cole explains what to expect from the holidays and beyond.

By Jeffrey Cole

At the end of 1992, looking back at a year that had witnessed the end of three of her four children’s marriages, the publication of a best-selling, tell-all book in which Princess Diana disparaged the Royal Family, and ending with a catastrophic fire at her beloved Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth II proclaimed the fortieth year of her reign an annus horribilis. (“Horrible Year”—it sounds classier in Latin!)

Now that Her Majesty has seen 2020, she might have a more nostalgic view of 1992.

No matter how you look at it, 2020 has been a dreadful year.

But three of the prior worst years in American history all ended on a hopeful note.

1918: Although the Spanish flu killed more Americans than any other pandemic (a record that is in jeopardy of falling to COVID-19), it truly had “rounded the corner” by the end of the year. The second and by far most lethal wave had peaked by the end of Fall 1918.

1941: The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 killed a staggering 2,403 soldiers and civilians. (Today far more than that are dying every day from the virus.) The attack drew America into World War. By the end of the year, the nation united behind its war-time President, FDR. Morale was at record levels as millions enlisted, and the country was massively gearing up production to win the war.

1968: A year that had seen the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, a tragic and deepening war in Vietnam, Soviet suppression of freedom in Prague, and violent riots and demonstrations, also ended on a hopeful note. Apollo 8 became the first spacecraft ever to leave Earth’s orbit to near the moon. The “earthrise” photos on Christmas Eve of our planet as a luminous sphere from a quarter of a million miles away evoked spiritual and even religious imagery and offered the promise of a better year.

But we have no such luck in our annus horribilis, 2020.

Things are getting worse.

The pandemic is reaching record levels with almost 300,000 dead and models projecting that could double by the spring. We are approaching 3,000 deaths a day and much of the country shutting down again. The election ended in early November and should be in our rearview mirror. However, the nation is now watching a defeated candidate, increasingly detached from reality, working full-time to undermine American democracy for no better reason than to soothe his damaged ego and not be seen as a loser.

Our political and social divisions have been so greatly aggravated that many of us fear violence and unrest could break out at any time. Even the biggest development that should produce hope and thankfulness—vaccines appearing ready to put the threat of COVID behind us—is getting drowned out by conflict and fake news. The breakthrough that can end the pandemic is being castigated as a plot by (take your pick): the government, 5G cell towers, Bill Gates, George Soros, and/or pharma companies that want to make money, control our minds, or plant tracking devices in our bodies.

There is no upper limit to the conspiracy theories that may lead as many as 50% of people in some communities to reject the very thing that could save their lives.

The year that has been unlike any other will end in a few weeks also unlike any other. The month that is usually characterized by celebrations, togetherness, good will, and generosity will be very different.

A couple of predictions about the soon-to-be disappearing 2020:

Stores and malls

Holiday shopping is one of the signature activities of the end of the year. Some merchants see as much as 50% of their annual sales in this season. Now we are afraid to be in stores or malls around possibly infected people. In some communities, stores are not allowed to be open. Of course, we can and have shifted much of our shopping to online commerce.

Ecommerce companies expect so much volume that deadlines for ordering gifts are even earlier than suggestions for getting ballots to a crippled postal service. Amazon, the biggest of the online companies, has seen its sales increase 50% and growing this year. That’s for a $1 trillion company!

We’ll get our gifts, but even those who buy everything online will lose out. Visiting stores and malls with beautiful decorations, large Christmas trees, getting presents wrapped, and all the other iconic parts of the holiday shopping experience (including putting on scarves and overcoats in colder climates) will not be a part of 2020.

Kids sitting on Santa’s lap will have to wait a year. Like much of our lives, Santa will move online and be relegated to a Zoom call. Sadly, many who have lost their jobs or seen their income decline will not be able to celebrate by buying gifts for loved ones or friends.

For those who do buy, it will not be practical gifts like toasters or bed sheets. Instead, we will seek out comfort gifts: personal things to make us feel better, lift our spirits, and remind us of the joys in life. We may be more indulgent to our personal pleasures and desires than ever.

Trees and decorations

If we follow the CDC and local regulations, we will stay at home where we have been since last March. One way we will make ourselves happier and spruce up the walls we have been staring at 24 hours a day is by indulging (or overindulging) in Christmas or other holiday decorations. Those who rarely if ever buy trees will likely do so this year. Expect those trees to be bigger than ever and real rather than artificial.

Lights, menorahs, holiday music, food, and aromas will fill our homes more than ever, offering a comforting environment and connection to family and memories. One of the few things we may be able to do is walk or ride past our neighbor’s homes, appreciating even those who overdo it with holiday decorations and spirit.

We will all likely overdo it with those things that we can control and to make our lives feel a little better.

New Year’s Eve

There will not be more than a million people in Times Square or the center of our community. The ball will still drop, and there will be celebrations on television and online, but they will only be observable from home.

But New Year’s Eve will fill an even more important need this year. It will bring the last fleeting moments of this horrible year. It will mark the ending.

Although absolutely nothing will change on January 1, psychologically we will be out of 2020. We will begin a year of hope, when there will be a vaccine and an eventual return to life that bears a passing resemblance to that before March. New Year’s Day will bring an enormous catharsis and perhaps some genuine optimism for the first time in almost a year.

I’ve been arguing that 11:59pm, December 31, 2020 should flip into January 1, 2020: we should erase the past year from our memories and start the year over again. None of us have to add a year to our age. We’ll consider the new 2020 a do-over (although the exception will be the presidential campaign: no one wants to live through that again, except one unhappy resident of Washington, DC). It’s a simple and elegant plan, but, regrettably, I have not been able to gain any traction.

Every day has been a battle, and things will take a while to get better, but 2021 is when it will happen.

Soon, we will all put more enthusiasm, conviction, and hope than ever into the wish, Happy New Year!



Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.



See all columns from the center.

December 8, 2020