Celebration in Isolation: Socialization and Community in a Pandemic world (The Autry’s Collecting Community History Initiative)

Posted on: March 8, 2021

Añalisa Siemsen-McQuaide: “These were special fancy dress masks for a social distancing version of The Met Gala we did with the neighbors (socially distancing). It was for our daughters to have something to work on to take their minds off of being 'stuck in the house' and have a reason to dress up and feel fancy. My daughter loves fashion, so she was disappointed not see the outfits at the Met Gala, so we decided to do our own home version.“

By: Marina Nye, Curatorial Research Assistant and PhD Student, UCLA History dept.

The pandemic has forced us to change the way we socialize with our communities. Despite limitations, Americans have found new ways to stay connected to their friends and loved ones. The submissions shared with the Collecting Community History Initiative (CCHI) demonstrate how celebration in isolation is a universal experience. The contributors of the initiative have come up with safe and creative ways to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and holidays in a world where we are required to stay 6 ft away from each other.

By mid-March, everyone will have experienced a pandemic birthday. Being mindful of public health, CCHI contributors have come up with imaginative ways to commemorate the occasion. Whether it’s a socially distanced birthday party in a parking lot (accomplished by Beth Virostek) or a fantasy-inspired child’s birthday on Zoom (organized by Irena Orlov), Americans are celebrating in COVID-friendly ways. Saam Gabbay took an alternative approach to his pandemic birthday and visited his friend’s homes to capture photos of them posing through their windows. Gabbay describes this photography project as a “#touchlessbirthday.”

Other contributors are settling for a digital space. Zoom is not just used for keeping in touch, it is now the new wedding chapel. Natalay Goldstein, a self-described “corona-bride”, writes “[we are] hoping wedding ceremonies will be performed in person in time for our date. Otherwise, our marriage may happen over Zoom!” Others have carefully gathered in intimate groups to tie the knot. Raquel Pelayo’s son and fiancé had a civil ceremony in-person but reduced the guest list to just family members. Some have decided to celebrate in the comfort of their own homes with their immediate households; such as Tori Tingley Ryan and her partner who celebrated their one-year wedding anniversary at home in their wedding clothes, matching masks, and with their dog Minnie.

Even holidays have not been spared. When usually Americans would gather in crowds to celebrate, the festivities this year have been intimate affairs. In past years, Teena Apeles’ family had large Easter celebrations, but this year, Apeles explains that “together our family of three came up with a fun obstacle course to especially keep our 7-year-old's memories of Easter (and ours) as something to treasure even in isolation.” The pandemic has impacted other religious gatherings. Bint Al-Shalabiya now meets once a week with fellow Sufi dervishes via Zoom. She made accommodations by observing Ramadan on this new online format. Apeles and Al-Shlabiya have made creative changes to their sacred days in order to keep their communities safe.

Mother’s Day has also taken a hit. With the elderly population being especially at risk, many opted out of celebrating Mother’s Day in fear of infecting their loved ones. Annie Rose Boyd-Hargrove usually has a large and momentous Mother’s Day with her 5 children, 11 grandchildren, and great-grandchild. This year, Boyd-Hargrove had to settle for telephone calls and social media messages. Randi Malkin Steinberger found a way to see her family from a distance. Steinberger organized a drive-by Mother’s Day visit where she waved to her loved ones from the sidewalk. While these holiday changes are made with heavy hearts, many Americans are willing to sacrifice a large gathering and temporarily replace it with an intimate socially distanced event.

Isolation has also sparked new celebrations that offer a temporary escape from the pandemic. Adorned with extravagant dresses and matching masks, Añalisa Siemsen-McQuaide hosted a COVID-safe Met Gala-inspired event with friends and neighbors. Siemsen-McQuaide explains how this event gave her and her daughter “something to work on to take their minds off of being 'stuck in the house' and have a reason to dress up and feel fancy.” The vast collection of submissions demonstrate the imaginative ways Americans are contending with the limitations of a pandemic world.

Unfortunately, not everyone has been as mindful and precautious with their celebrations. Most recently, some Americans gathered in large groups to watch the Superbowl. Despite a segment of the population’s careless actions in regard to public safety, the CCHI submissions have highlighted how many people are willing to alter their lives for the greater good.

While the pandemic has altered people's day-to-day lives, it has not kept them from living it to their fullest. Submissions to the CCHI initiative have revealed the innovative and creative ways Americans are approaching important dates. Although no one would voluntarily choose these new conditions, the West has adapted remarkably well to this challenge. The isolation caused by the pandemic has made us remorseful and melancholy, yet if these submissions have taught us anything, it is that Americans in the West are resourceful, creative, resilient, and willing to put the safety of their community first.