This is supposed to be the happiest time of the year — a fun-filled time celebrating the birth of Jesus with family and friends and lots of gifts and good times.

Unfortunately, for many, it is not a particularly happy time — not because they don't celebrate Christ's birth, but because of circumstances that find them dealing with issues that seem to overwhelm them at times.

Some families have had loved ones die during the past year and are celebrating for the first time without them. Others know that because of illness, this probably will be the last Christmas some of their family will be with them.

Others are dealing with difficult issues such as divorce, health issues, job issues, financial issues and loneliness as they again will see the commercials and hear the plans of those more fortunate and while they are happy for them, it still leaves a void in their own lives.

This year when people unwrap all those wonderful gifts, I hope they also have shared some special gifts that can't be wrapped but can change a person's life.

Of course, at the top of the list is faith — the reason we even celebrate a special birthday — faith brings us hope that tomorrow will be better than today and even if it isn't, there is someone who stands with us.

Family and friends are gifts that are so priceless no one could buy them and if they could be bought they wouldn't mean as much.

When I think of special gifts, I always think of memories that can't be destroyed, special times that when recalled may make us laugh and cry at the same time. It's funny how the older we get, the more previous memories are.

Maybe that's another reason Christmas is so special — it's the time of making memories that last far after all the gift wrap is thrown away, the tree put away for another year and the material gifts have worn out. But memories last forever. Hopefully you will have good memories to add to your celebration this year.

The holiday music that fills the air is really more than just Christmas carols and songs; they are reminders of just why the season is so special and why each person has a special carol that means something to that person. For some it's the silly "Grandma Got Run over by a Reindeer," while for others, it's the majestic "Silent Night" or the traditional "Silver Bells." Whatever the song, it conveys a special message to us — memories, love, reminders of why we take time out once a year to connect with people, to remind others they are loved, to reach out to those in need.

Indeed, Christmas is a special time. I wish this Christmas when you are done shopping and wrapping and have time to relax that you remember those who may not be quite in the same Christmas spirit this year and say a prayer for them to have the greats gifts of all: love and peace.

While we'd like to think that each person who has a material gift experiences the same love and peace we do, we know that even a gaily-wrapped gift cannot take the place of love and peace, of people we are missing.

We cannot take away the hurt, but we can be sensitive enough to know that not everyone will have a "Merry Christmas." My prayer again this year is that each one will have a "blessed Christmas," made brighter by the memories that are among our greatest gifts of all.

And on Christmas Eve when the entire world seems to stop, may the words of "Silent Night" bring the hope and peace that everyone seeks each day of each year.

There can be no greater gift than knowing that hope and love that give us reason to celebrate not just Christmas, but life itself.

Jean Shanley is retired from The Meadville Tribune where she was communities and society editor.

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