I had never seen “Meet Me in St. Louis” until recently, but I knew the song. Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is, according to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), the fifth most popular Christmas song of all time. It has been covered by countless musicians in the 76 years since it was written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane in 1944. Like all great art, the song is timeless: it could not be more timely than in this year.
That first line caught my ear one night earlier this month when it popped up on the radio. “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light. Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.” I cannot be alone in feeling like this sentiment sums up Christmas in the year 2020. We have to remind ourselves to let our hearts be light as we search for solace in the possibility that we will return to our traditions next year.
There are signs of hope for a better future with regard to the pandemic. I opened the newspaper on Dec. 11 to two headlines reading: “Panel endorses Pfizer vaccine” and “COVID-19 surge may have hit a plateau.” Of course, that news could change again between this writing and your reading, but the experts are hinting that “next year all our troubles will be miles away” — at least for some.
The coronavirus has reminded us how connected we are to each other while simultaneously shining a light on old divisions that remain in our nation around race and economic class. Last spring, many of us did not know anyone who had tested positive for COVID-19, much less died from it; yet, everyone felt the impact of those unknown patients when the state of Colorado closed down. Throughout the year, the risk inherent in our connectedness has played out in story after story, from college campus spreads to warnings about Thanksgiving travel. We have learned individual behavior has implications on a far broader population than we ever imagined.
The resulting health and economic devastation has disproportionately impacted people who were already financially strained. Not only our poor, but small business owners, minimum wage workers, and the elderly. People of color and people with chronic health issues — both segments of the population that are systemically tied to poverty — have been the most severely impacted by COVID-19.
The rapid development of a vaccine has been an incredible feat, but it is not magic. In the past eight months, thousands of people in our communities have gone without work. They have been struggling to pay, or deferring, rent during that time. Students, especially those in low income school districts, have been without the educational and social supports that schools provide, for almost two semesters. These are all issues that we will have to address in the years to come. Even more important, perhaps, is the reality that a vaccine will not change the underlying issues that made COVID-19 so damaging: those with less financial resources have far greater health risks than those of us who are financially stable.
This Christmas, we may have to go without our cherished traditions, but what we celebrate is more important than ever. The birth of our Savior brought hope to the world. Ultimately, our faith and the teachings of our Church will do far more to heal our wounded communities than the vaccine. Catholic social teaching calls us to family, community, and participation. It tells us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. Perhaps most importantly is the call for solidarity, recognizing that “we are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences.” This is the promise that Christ’s birth brought to our world. The only way we will truly recover is by following his lead.
There is another popular Christmas song that occasionally plays on the radio, though not with the same frequency as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It is Harry Belafonte’s 1956 classic, “Mary’s Boy Child.” In the chorus, Belafonte sings, “Hark! Now hear the angels sing: ‘New King’s born today. And man will live for evermore because of Christmas Day’!” That song has become a favorite of mine this year, because in 2021, our troubles may be out of sight, but they will not be gone. For that, we will continue to look to our King and his commandment to love our neighbor. Merry Christmas.