The lost year

The general shortage of chapter breaks in 2020 has three notable consequences. First, as researchers have demonstrated, moments of transition can prompt people to reappraise their habits, and perhaps adopt new ones. “The lack of [chapter breaks] means we can feel stagnant,” Santos said. “It’s hard, within this long period of COVID time, to start something new.”

Second, a year without celebrations means fewer vivid memories—and looking back on vivid memories is one way people mark the passing of time. Santos said that this “kind of makes time all smush together,” such that a year can seem like an undifferentiated blob.

Third, and maybe most powerfully, missing out on full-fledged birthday parties, baby showers, and so on can feel like cutting pages out of one’s life story. Rites marking important milestones “play a key role in shaping what we call our narrative self, the sense of who we are and how we came to be that person,” Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, told me. “For many people, the lack of ceremony is experienced as a feeling of emptiness, as if their very life narrative had a gap in it.”

What’s more, as Xygalatas’s research indicates, the predictability of rituals is soothing. They “help us maintain a sense of structure and control in our lives, and this can allow us to overcome some of the stressors of daily life,” he said. Skipping beloved—and reliable—holiday traditions can leave people feeling additionally unmoored in a year when they could use extra comfort.