Celebrations Altered by Covid-19

Pandemic changes but does not prevent important family and cultural celebrations

Pookalam is a traditional art form practiced during the festival of Onam.

Pookalam is a traditional art form practiced during the festival of Onam.

Pookalam is a traditional art form practiced during the festival of Onam.

Celebrations like Onam, annual Birthday parties, and Rosh Hashanah have been altered due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The cultural celebration of Onam traditionally occurs in Kerala, India and consists of traditional dances, pookalam, and feasting according to the Kerala Association of New England (KANE). 

This festival will continue but in a very reduced form.

According to Wikipedia, pookalam is the art of making circular patterns out of flower petals.

In Minnesota, Onam is hosted by the Minnesota Malayalee Association (MMA).

“Usually, there are about 500 to 800 people,” said former MMA board member Gladwin Akathoot.

“In the community, this is the event that most people look forward to. It’s almost a half day event but preparations start weeks in advance for the traditional dances, dramas, songs,” said Akathoot.

According to the KANE, kaikotti kali, or thiruvathira kali, is one of Kerala’s traditional dances. It is performed by eight to twelve women clad in white sari and gold jewelry around a traditional Kerala lamp called a Deepam. 

“The biggest attraction is the sadya, a traditional meal served on banana leaves. There may be twenty, thirty dishes. To make it authentic, people start cooking it themselves the previous day,” said Akathoot.

“It’s a nostalgic event with everyone wearing traditional clothes, and our culture is somewhat revived,” said Akathoot.

“Because we can’t do it this year, we’re doing a low-key virtual event. Some events are being recorded and will be streamed,” said Akathoot.

According to MMA’s website, the virtual event was on September 19 and 20. Dances and songs were performed virtually.

“The spirit of Onam still lives on,” said Akathoot.


According to Jewel Ihrke (9), family birthday parties are a type of celebration that has been affected by the pandemic.

“For the adults in our extended family, we typically meet once in the spring to collectively celebrate those with a birthday between January 1st and June 31st, and once in the fall to celebrate the rest,” said Ihrke in a text. 

Ihrke said that relatives would get together to play games, exchange gifts, and catch up with each other.

“These in-person parties were cancelled this year… we did not meet for the ‘early’ (spring) adults, nor will we be meeting for the ‘late’ (fall)  adults,” said Ihrke.

“We did break from tradition this year to hold a special birthday celebration for just my grandpa. He turned 89 this year and is the first person in our family’s history to have a Zoom birthday party! It was very special… gotta find some silver linings,” said Ihrke.

“I much prefer the in-person version, but I understand and appreciate the clear and present danger that the pandemic poses and will do what the medical experts suggest I do,” said Ihrke.

This year, birthday parties have been changed, said Sophia Heil (6) and her mother Margaret Heil.

“If it was a regular birthday, we would cook all of our own food, make the cake, and then we’d have more people in the house. We would have a lot more games they could play with everyone together. We would sing and blow out candles on the cake, with everyone sitting closer to each other. That way we could have individual conversations,” Sophia Heil said. 

“Then after the birthday our friends would help clean up and send food home for people. And usually neighbors will stop by and say hello.” 

Sophia Heil said she wished she could have hugged people and had individual conversations with her family and friends. She said this year was her golden birthday, and that this year’s celebration would definitely be one to remember. 

“We ended up having bottled pop and water instead of making our own lemonade or tea. We didn’t serve up ice cream, but we served up store-bought cake instead. We baked the vegetables in a bag as well. Some of us wore masks, and then I served the food,” said Margaret Heil.

Margaret Heil admits that this year’s celebration was definitely an interesting one, and ended up being a bit stressful. 

“I feel like it depended on how people were feeling because they were thinking in the background, ‘Is this safe?’ So that was always on their mind, and people can’t be as present with people when you’re constantly thinking those things. And Grandma who’s 90, I don’t know if she connected as well with everybody being so far away.” 

Covid-19 has made it difficult for families to host Rosh Hashanah celebrations because almost all of the events are done within the home, however, Covid-19 has not stopped families from continuing to carry on the Jewish tradition. 

According to Mona Armel, 73, from St. Louis Park,  Covid has changed where she’s going and how she will celebrate Rosh Hashanah. 

Typically Rosh Hashanah meals include roasted chicken with carrots and potatoes, challah bread, and chicken soup with matzo balls, Armel said.

One of Rosh Hashanah’s most meaningful customs involves apples and honey. The dipping of apple slices in honey signifies the hope that the New Year will be sweet, Armel said.

“Usually, my friend Peggy from high school invites me and about eight other people to her home in Mendota Heights each year for Rosh Hashanah. She usually brings her children and grandchildren to the dinners as well,” said Armel.

Armel said this year because of Covid her friend hasn’t been going grocery shopping or even going out this year. She has a 3-car garage, and is planning to do it out there. But her grandchildren aren’t coming this year, we would be 6 feet apart, and she wouldn’t have food on the table. She would be taking individual plates up and giving you the food separately.” 

“Back in the day when my Mom and Dad were still alive, we would have about 20 people around the table, and were raised to invite people who didn’t have a place to go on a special day. And even though we didn’t have much money, we would still share all the food that we did have. I resented, though,” Armel said. 

According to Armel, she did not live in a wealthy household growing up. They were very poor, and when she was younger, the children would get all the protein, not the adults. 

“Everything thinks all Jewish people are rich, that’s not true,” said Armel.

She says that even though they weren’t rich, they still fulfilled the Rosh Hashanah Tradition. 

“Considering all the circumstances, I called Peggy and told her I wasn’t coming because I didn’t want to take the chance of having a mask off eating with people and risking getting sick if her grandchildren weren’t going to be there. Because I want to see them grow, and plus those other people there weren’t even my friends,” Armel said.