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Growing up, most of my Christmases were spent with only my immediate family. We lived far away from grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, but our Christmases were, nonetheless, filled with merriment as we built sweet traditions with each other and our friends.

One Christmas, in particular, holds special meaning: the Christmas of my senior year of high school. I knew I’d be home for Christmases during college (and likely beyond), but that one felt different because it was the last one of my youth. We were in the midst of the usual preparations—gift-wrapping, baking, decorating, addressing Christmas cards—when the unexpected happened.

The Wednesday before Christmas break, my mom was in unbearable pain. My dad took her to urgent care, then to the hospital 30 minutes away. From there, she was sent by helicopter to a bigger hospital an hour away from our small town.

An artery to one of her kidneys had ruptured. We later learned she was lucky to survive that night.

The next few days were both blurry and clear at once. The presents hadn’t yet all been wrapped, the party had to be canceled, and my sister and I made a disastrously grainy batch of fudge. But none of that mattered: we just wanted our mom back home.

Our story ends well. Mom did come home in time for Christmas, and it’s no exaggeration to say that, in spite of it being our simplest one ever, it was also the most merry. It also brought my faith into focus in a bigger way than I had ever experienced before. That Christmas has changed the way I have thought of every Christmas going forward: it doesn’t have to be perfect to be rich with joy and meaning.

Memories of that cherished Christmas come back every December, but they feel especially strong this year: a Christmas that, for many of us, will look different in some way.

I keep thinking of the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and the idea that it is sometimes the little Christmases that are the most merry. There’s also a poignancy to the song’s second line, “Let your hearts be light.” Sometimes, when the world, or even our own lives, feel especially heavy, we have to remind ourselves: let your hearts be light. Look for the joy, and allow yourself to feel it.

And though “from now on our troubles will be out of sight” doesn’t feel like it rings true right now, we can still find moments in this season that are full of peace and contentment: taking that first taste of a Christmas cookie that’s fresh from the oven, cuddling up under a blanket to watch a favorite Christmas movie, talking with a loved one.

The lines about "faithful friends who are dear to us" may hit us hard, along with “Through the years, we all will be together—if the fates allow.” Some of us will gather, as we always have, in the homes of loved ones; some of us will be celebrating alone, perhaps for the first time. Others will be grieving the loss of friends or family members. There’s a new heaviness our hearts may have to bear.

But the song continues with hope: “Hang the shining star upon the highest bough.” When I hear that, I think of how, no matter what the circumstances are like, it is still Christmas. The pandemic may take away our favorite events, or limit who we can see, or alter our favorite traditions. But it cannot take away Christmas, itself, and we can cling to that.

This playlist is anchored with J.J. Heller’s rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Also featuring Wilder Atkins’ “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” Lauren Daigle’s “What Child is This,” and Leslie Odom Jr.’s “The First Noel” (my favorite version!), it’s an invitation to slow down and reflect on the meaning of this season.

We’re wishing you a merry little Christmas of your own, whatever it looks like this year.