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Rev. Wil Gafney Christmas has always been about finding hope amid awfulness. This year isn't different.

All of the symbolism of Christmas is designed to remind us that better days are coming. There is no better year to remember that than this one.
Image: Rows of streets show dark houses with one lit up in Christmas lights.
Shining alone, the lights adorning that single home seemed like a signal to the universe that we will choose joy now — today.Daniel Fishel / for NBC News

Christmas looms large on the American horizon. It is so much more than a high feast day or a commemoration of the birth of Jesus for faithful Christians. It is a cultural phenomenon, engulfing enormous swaths of the commercial and digital airspace starting the day after Halloween, if not before. It is a season that sweeps up and rolls over other all other religious and cultural traditions while sometimes gesturing at inclusion. It is a marketing juggernaut and a make-or-break financial season for the great and the small.

It is a season that centers children, however mercenary and materialistic the underlying motivations. It is a multisensory experience — lights, music, cookies, cider (and so much more food and many more drinks), crackling fires, the laps of various Santas and so many more tastes and smells and sights and sounds and textures that layer a thousand memories in our collective minds. It is invariably marked by family gatherings, whether across the country or down the road, to eat and drink and meet the babies and measure the kids and welcome the new partners and tell a thousand oft-heard stories.

There is, perhaps more so of late, inevitable political posturing about greetings, inclusion and erasure. There is gift-giving — both thoughtful and perfunctory — and regifting. And there is joy, some of which is performative and some of which is real, deep and infectious.

Christmas can also be, even in a normal year, a time of profound sorrow. Its cultural impact always makes it one of the measures of time passed since the death of a dear one. There are empty places at our tables and around our trees — there will be empty chairs at my family tables for my aunt and, as of recently, another for my mother — and gifts that will never be given or received, with children who will not see their parents, grandparents or perhaps even their next Christmas.

This is, for many people, a painfully hard Christmas. The losses with which we are reckoning this year are of an unimaginable magnitude.

We have had difficult Christmases before, as individuals and as a society. We have had wartime Christmases, grief-filled Christmases after losing loved ones, post-divorce Christmases and even, though there are few alive left to remember them, plague Christmases.

That is why there are "blue" Christmas services tending to the grief the season produces, enabling folks to mark the holiday absent of the gaiety they may not feel or find painful to endure. Christmas — and the entirety of the season from Thanksgiving to New Year's — can be painful for many people because of family estrangement, broken hearts and other broken relationships.

All of this was the case before millions of lives and hundreds of thousands of American families were shattered by Covid-19.

This is, for many people, a painfully hard Christmas. The losses with which we are reckoning this year — or in some cases not — are of an unimaginable magnitude. They are interwoven with the bitterness resulting from a long season of election politics and the righteous outrage — shared by too few — over the continuing killing of Black women and men in the street by law enforcement. It is magnified by the obligation to one another that many of us feel to remain apart from those friends and family in whom we would normally take solace during times or crisis.

There will be joy this year; it has already begun to seep into the world.

As a solstice holiday, though, Christmas is perfectly timed to take the sorrows from the shadows of the waning solstice, through the twinkling lights of Christmas into a new year filled with new hope and new possibilities and the accompanying redistribution of light and shadow. The greens and flowers of Christmas — fir trees, poinsettias and amaryllis — bear witness to the resiliency of life even in the depths of our winter.

Personally, nothing speaks to me of the defiant joy of this Covid Christmas like my neighbor, who began hanging Christmas lights the day after Halloween. Shining alone, with no other lights accompanying them, the multicolored lights shone like jewels adorning just that single home. Seemingly in a moment, the spooky playfulness of Halloween had been replaced by twinkling Christmas lights, shining bright, proclaiming that a season of joy was not just ahead, but at hand. In truth, I don't know whether this was out of the ordinary for them. But for me, it seemed like a signal to the universe that we will choose joy now — today; we will not wait.

This year, I have watched individuals and communities begin their Advent and Christmas observations and decorations earlier than ever. And while some religious Grinches argue for absolute conformity to the Christian calendar — no celebrations more than four Sundays before Christmas Day — more of us welcome and embrace people's absolute determination to find joy at this very difficult time, let alone their decisions to, where necessary, create joy when there is none to be found.

And there will be joy this year; it has already begun to seep into the world. There was a defiant joy in the peri-Halloween Christmas lights of my neighbor. There is a determination in every Zoom present-opening invite, every tiny apartment Christmas tree where none ever stood before, in every batch of not-quite-perfect cookies by a "pandemic chef" to re-create the joy of the season whether we can gather or not.

The lights of Christmas shine brightly and defiantly this year, bolstered by the lights of Hanukkah, which have their own story of defiance and resistance. I wish you a merry defiant Christmas, hope that you had a happy Hanukkah and pray that we all have a new year filled with hope.