“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”
These are Jo March’s opening words in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which begins by telling how the March family manages to turn a stark Christmas into a cheerful one amid the cruelties of the Civil War. I remember devouring the classic novel in six days.
This year, I’ve found myself muttering alongside Jo: Christmas won’t be Christmas with COVID. Many of my favorite Christmas traditions, like family trips to The Nutcracker ballet and holiday gatherings, have been cancelled. I’m not even guaranteed to attend Christmas Mass.
As COVID lags on, I’ve felt more and more anonymous.
I see far too many people in pixels and far too few people in person. Since I now work from home and most in-person social events are cancelled, I barely fill my gas tank once a month. I am no longer an active member of society, but a passive observer, gleaning its goings-on from the screen below my thumb. As COVID cases rise, this seems unlikely to change any time soon. That feels heavy and wearying, especially at Christmas.
In early November I decided to cheer myself up by diving headlong into Christmas decorating and music. My tree went up earlier than ever before. I lined my kitchen counter with my collection of holiday mugs. Twinkle lights now coat my apartment and I’m well on my way to burning through my cinnamon Christmas candle.
On a recent shopping run, my sister played O Holy Night in the car, and its familiar words made me pause:
Long lay the world, in sin and error pining
'Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks, a new and glorious morn
These lyrics struck me differently this year — they felt like a beautiful, kept promise that even 2020’s harshest cruelties could not efface.
J.R.R. Tolkien coined the word eucatastrophe to describe movements of grace in his stories, defining it as “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.”
That’s what Christmas feels like to me this year. After all the changes and closures that COVID has brought, it’s easy to believe that Christ’s coming is cancelled too. And after nine months of isolation and anonymity, it seems impossible that He is coming for the worth He sees in my soul.
But He is coming still. There’s a rawness and a vulnerability to the joy that brings. And it holds me responsible to keep my hope alive, even amid the darkening days and the worsening virus.
As I head into a holiday season that will look like none I’ve ever experienced, I’ll navigate it by remembering the reason for my hope.