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Illustration by Rachel Wada

In December, 2020 and now in 2021, I’ve given a great deal of attention to Ella Fitzgerald’s 1960 version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. I’ve loved it for years, but it has spoken to me in a new way during our long pandemic. Whether we celebrate Christmas religiously or not, I think it can speak to us as we negotiate another COVID Christmas. Written in 1943 by Hugh Martin, the lyrics have morphed with the times, becoming lighter as the times became sweeter, at least for the singers and their intended audience. Ella Fitzgerald recorded a version that, for me, captures our struggles more than 60 years later.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light

Two years ago, who would have known how important a “little” Christmas could be? In a pandemic time, we need to find our merriment, the lightness for our hearts, in the small gathering. This year vaccinations may enable more people to gather, but it still won’t be the dining-room stretching, plates-on-the-knees, tight-passing-in-the-halls, gatherings that we have enjoyed before with so many family and friends. Our family’s annual “start-off-organized-but-give-up-and-just-enjoy-the-crowd” Christmas party with a packed house, decimated cheese platter and too many empties will not run this year. We are looking to enjoy a merry little Christmas.

Next year all our troubles will be out of sight

Last year we hoped desperately that COVID-19, the lockdowns, the danger to frontline workers, the restrictions in retirement homes, the distanced classrooms and so many other privations, would be in the rearview mirror by 2021. The reality has been more complex. At this point in the song, the lyrics branch out beyond the first line aimed at those who celebrate Christmas: it offers the hope that present troubles will pass. This hope is something everyone can savour as the days (literally) reach their darkest. It’s worth noting that beyond the Christmas wish, this carol (or “Christmas song,” as some would have it) is not focused at all on the details of any Christian confession. It’s about the renewal of what we value in human interaction. So much interaction, from hugs for our closest family, through teams in a dressing room, to students in a classroom or friends in a restaurant, was lost to this pandemic and is returning now only uncertainly. Omicron has pushed us back into familiar and difficult territory. It seems too much to hope, but we all share the wish that our collective troubles will be out of sight.

Working with a mall Santa taught me about the pressure of the perfect Christmas

Once upon a time, my chocolate cravings got the better of me

Once again as in olden days, happy golden days of yore –

faithful friends who are dear to us, will be near to us once more.

Does not the past seem like a strange country? Does anyone else feel a bit of wonder looking at old footage of stadiums filled with people? Or remembering crowded TTC streetcars (nostalgically or not)? Or when seeing the COVID-19 signage that the big elevator can hold four people, but noticing the engraved sign that the elevator’s “normal” capacity is 62 people? Did we have that world, those days of yore? Yes. And what more do we want than that our dear friends can once again be our near friends? Better with masks, capacity limits and vaccines, better in the yard or the park than in an elevator these days, but still we look forward to closeness with less wariness, less guilt, less risk. My father is now 91 years old and we went over a year without a hug. Being six feet away outdoors for a few minutes while we tried to tell tremors from shivers was the best we could do at the moment and we tried to make it sustain us, but everyone wants more – and for good reason.

Someday soon, we all will be together, if the fates allow –

All together. I imagine it in our homes with extended family, in the classroom without masks, at the party, in churches, mosques and temples, on the field or the rink, but those damned or blessed fates! Thanks to vaccines, caution and tireless work from healthcare professionals and others, things are marginally better than they were a year ago. But who knew what contingency we are subject to, what may come upon us unbidden, unexpected, unreasonably – or reasonably in a way we didn’t understand before? This pandemic has taught us the awesome and terrible power of contingency: governments and their policies and priorities; each of us and our own small decisions about what is responsible, what is fair and what is too far. Some learned the power of contingency, the limit of what the fates allow earlier, through personal experience that was less shared. Some of us need this global experience to learn it again.

Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.

Muddling is what we do, as best we can, without perfection or the benefit of a crystal ball. In our personal lives, we’ve tried to do the right thing, the kind thing, the thing that gets the job done and the thing that we’re used to doing. These things do not always align and our muddling has sometimes worked well, but not always. We strive to do the best we can and trust that we’ll muddle through somehow. Vaccines have been an enormous help, but most of us also stand in gratitude toward those who face greater challenges, take on bigger risks and make bigger differences. As we muddle through, here’s to merry little Christmas and a happy new year. Let the fates allow!

John W. Marshall lives in Toronto.

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