There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays

How Bronx Science’s merriest students are celebrating the holiday of Christmas during this unusual year

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Montana Lee

Buying and decorating a real tree is my favorite Christmas tradition. Here, my little sister places the star, the cherry on top, on top of the tree, after we have finished hanging all of the other ornaments on it.

It’s December 2019. You walk through the bustling Bronx Science hallways before class, and the speakers play “All I Want for Christmas Is You”; vibrant paper and glittering decorations adorn lockers; a few red hats and elfin faces stand out from the sea of rushed students. Everyone chats excitedly about their plans for the winter break next week. Later that day, the chorus will visit a few classes at random and sing carols.

But it’s no longer the 2019 holiday season. It’s 2020 — due to the global Coronavirus pandemic, students are at home, and the way they are celebrating is changing with the times. But the merriest among us are fiercely determined to get back into the spirit just like before, yet in a safer way. 

Wearables are a recurring theme among Bronx Science’s most festive students. Jonathan Lopez ’21 wears a Santa hat each and every day of December. “I saw it in math class, and it made my day,” said Alannis Jaquez ’21. To many students, Henry Eaton ’21 is “the kid in the hallway who always wears the light-up Christmas sweaters.” In December, Eaton would often wear a portable outlet and attach LED string lights to them, weaving the lights through the sweater and around his sleeves. This year, he’s doing the same: “Not much has changed since last year. I’m wearing my sweaters (of course), and I set up a tree. I also plan on making lots of Christmas cookies.” Due to travel restrictions, he can’t share cookies with his North Carolina relatives. “I’ll either make fewer cookies or eat more … probably the latter,” he said.

Henry Eaton ’21 wears a Christmassy outfit next to his family’s festive, colorful tree. (Henry Eaton)

Kat Balsan ’21 is planning virtual options to “get together” with her grandmother in Florida this break. She also misses the school’s wonderful in person opportunities to get into the spirit of the holidays. During the last two years, she earned second and third place in the annual locker contest; now, she’s decorating at home instead. And the Bronx Science Student Organization has changed too. “Our school has so many fun opportunities to get into the spirit of the holidays,” said Balsan. Though the locker contest is no longer possible, the S.O. has created accessible and festive initiatives like holiday e-cards, teacher thank-you notes, and the Holiday Bake-Off (ingredients list here)

Kat Balsan ’21 finished in second and third place in the locker decorating contest during the past two years. (Ekaterina Balsan)

An unconventional holiday season has forced students to find unconventional ways to be festive. Elsa Chang ’24 prides herself on that: “This year, I dug out a bunch of my Christmas decorations and found a way to wear them regardless of whether or not they were meant to be worn.” That included a mini Santa hat from a doll, which she attached to her head with a hairpin. “I also shoved faux Christmas plants into my hair.”  To replace in-person caroling, she also sends her friends Christmas music sung in toad voices on a weekly basis to remind them to stay in spirit. 

Jonathan Lopez finds that the best way to get into the spirit is at home with the family. “We do not have much money, but we keep the love of the holidays however we can,” he said.  Music, decorating, food, and presents are his family’s ways of doing that. “The inside of our house has all red and green pillows and blankets. I also bring in the Christmas tree. It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t so sticky,” he said. But it’s worth the effort. There’s nothing like the feeling of unwrapping needle-covered presents from under a fragrant tree. For Jonathan, this takes place on the night of Christmas Eve. “It’s a Latino thing to stay up on til midnight to exchange gifts instead of Christmas day,” he said.

Many students have found refuge in the kitchen during this rough year, and the holidays are an extra special time to prepare goodies, to unwind, and to fully get into the spirit. Cookie-making is a yearly routine that provides calm and continuity, one of the few familiar activities that we’ve been able to cling to this year. Kat has done a lot of from-scratch cooking and baking; “I am really excited to start baking some traditional Greek cookies for the holidays. I especially enjoy baking because it requires equal parts concentration and creativity,” she added. Focusing on baking takes minds off of worries and chaotic thoughts, and seeing the final product come to life after a short period in the oven is incredibly rewarding.

More importantly, food is a medium of custom and connection. People build memories and share their love with one another through making, sharing, and eating food. “One of my favorite traditions is baking the vasilopita with my grandmother. It is a traditional Greek New Year’s dessert that contains a hidden coin — if your piece has it, it is good luck for the rest of the year!” said Balsan. 

A beautiful frosted ornament rests on a branch; a small stocking hangs near behind. (Montana Lee)

Baking’s cousin, cooking, is Jonathan Lopez’s favorite part of Christmas.  “My favorite memory from the holidays would be last year. It was the first year during which I cooked almost all of Christmas dinner — so many vegetables, a turkey, ham, lasagna, rice, two pies, candied yams, and who knows what else. Seeing it all on the table and having my family all love it gave me a special warm feeling inside, like only Christmas can give.”

The holidays are not — and shouldn’t be — about gifts and displays. They’re about being together with your loved ones, feeling merry, and enjoying each other’s company, though this message is sometimes lost in the wave of Christmas consumerism. “My favorite memory of the holidays is Christmas last year, 2019. It was the first Christmas where my family came together and just had fun,” recalled Elsa Chang. Perhaps Jonathan Lopez put it best: “Sometimes, I feel that love is the only thing in the world that matters, that people do good things for the sake of it. And that’s the feeling of Christmas.” 

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