The holidays are here again, but this time they are nestled inside a pandemic.

A time when most of us will choose not to physically be together to try and keep everyone we love safe.

When so many of us are actively grieving people, we have lost and live with the ongoing fear of losing more.

A time when isolation is more than just a concept, we think about for our seniors in nursing homes, but a reality that has now permeated our own lives.

In the past, when I have been asked to write or provide commentary on strategies to deal with holiday stress, I would pull out what we know about coping under stressful times. You know, time management techniques, throwing perfection out the window, and focusing on the moment. Of course, all of these techniques are still valuable and needed, but my thoughts have focused elsewhere this year.

This year my mind is not staying in the present and savoring the moments; instead, my mind is wandering back in time. I find myself reminiscing about what makes a holiday a holiday and the result of this walk back in time is this love letter to my mother.

Dear Mom,

The sights, smells, images, and feelings of the holidays were triggered for me today as I pulled out Nana’s old metal tin canister with the faint smell of anise lingering on the handles. Every year, the container would hold the Taralli anise-flavored rolls you would make in preparation for Christmas morning. My mind went back in time as the canister triggered memories.

The Christmas tree is twinkling with the glow of the big bulbs reflecting off the silver icicles that hang on the tree branches. The unwrapped presents from Santa’s sack were strategically placed under the tree and all around us. It’s Christmas morning, and like every year before, we woke up in the tiny living room of Nana’s house, sleeping in our sleeping bags on her gold carpet. The furniture is pushed up against the wall to make room for the presents. The streetlight streams through the curtain, teasing us with the first glimpse of the gifts.

With what I can only imagine was a tremendous amount of work and effort, you and dad were able to pack up Santa gifts in the trunk of the car without us noticing. Driving two hours to Nana’s house and then quietly after we slept laying out the presents. I look at that “simple” task and know the amount of effort and creativity expended to create the magical moment that I can still replay as a 58-year-old woman.

I am so grateful to you for the gift of traditions. Traditions keep us anchored to our past; they give us a sense of connection, uniqueness, and belonging—everything that we are craving now more than ever. This year will be our first Christmas of not being together, and as I reflect on the separation, my mind replays another memory.

Our Christmas eve traditional Wigilia meal is being served on a table that has been set with attention to every detail, creating a festive, glittering place to begin our prayer, express gratitude and share the Polish Oplatek. It feels warm, welcoming, and magical in that dining room as the candles dance and the laughter and conversation get louder.

I love Christmas. Everything about the holiday fills me with joy, hope, the childlike wonder of magic, and the belief in all that is good but can’t be seen.

This didn’t happen to me by accident. It happened to me because of you.

I noticed you in the kitchen, making every special dish for each of us. I saw the amount of work that went into the table preparation, the decorating, and thoughtful gifts. I watched you in wonder that even at the age of 85, your energy and dedication to our traditions remained unchanged from year to year.

But what I didn’t do was tell you that I realized that you are the magic of Christmas and always have been.

You have always been the magic behind the meals, the gifts, the tree, and the generosity of spirit that resides in my soul.

Thank you for creating the magic that makes me feel connected even when we are apart.