When the Rev. Richard Miller and his wife, Carolyn, floated the idea of selling their cottage in the Poconos, one of their five grandchildren promptly objected.
"Where would we have Christmas if you sell the cottage," the youngster wondered.
The Millers relented, figuring they’d uphold the family Christmas tradition one more time before selling the cottage in Paradise Falls, near Mount Pocono in Monroe County.
That was before the COVID-19 crisis.
Now, with record numbers of people afflicted amid a resurgence of the coronavirus, the Millers' final Christmas in the Poconos is in jeopardy.
Miller, a retired Lutheran pastor, harbors a glimmer of hope that a Christmas miracle of sorts would save the cherished family tradition.
At the same time, he’s resigned to the reality that, as they did on Easter, it’s a virtual certainty the family will gather for Christmas on Zoom.
"The thing I’m going to miss most is the hugs," confided Richard, 82, who lives in Topton. "There’d be welcoming hugs, good-bye hugs, hugs all around."
Even before Pennsylvania and surrounding states implemented restrictions on travel and social gatherings for Thanksgiving, the coronavirus had already taken its toll on Christmas.
Popular venues like Reading’s Christmas on the Mountain were canceled, making it harder for kids to give Santa Claus their Christmas wish lists.
In places where Santa could be found, he often was seated behind a plexiglass shield or also out of reach by distance from his young admirers.
The long-held tradition of children sitting on Santa’s lap fell victim to the virus.
So have family gatherings.
For more than 20 years, Robert Adams has spent Christmas with his brother’s family in Maryland. It was one of the few times a year he’d get to see his mother, who also lives in Maryland.
"It was a family tradition," said Adams, 54. "My brother’s house was a revolving door where as many as 70 people would be in and out over the holidays."
This year, Adams said, the family gathering has been canceled, and he’ll be spending the holiday at home in Hamburg.
And, he’s not happy about it.
Adams understands that precautions are in order, especially for people with high-risk conditions like COPD.
At the same time, he thinks authorities might have gone a bit too far in implementing rigid COVID-19 mitigation restrictions.
From the time she was a child, Christy Bailey looked forward to getting together with family at Christmas.
Her parents’ home in Shoemakersville would be alive with the sounds of 20 or more people on Christmas Day.
They’d sit down at a table festooned with Pennsylvania Dutch staples like potato filling, candied sweet potatoes and Granny’s cranberry relish.
This year, instead of the usual 20 or so, Christmas will involve just her immediate family.
"It’s sad that all of us can’t get together this year," said Bailey, 43, a Shoemakersville retail store manager. "As you get older, family gatherings at Christmas mean a lot more."
Bailey had hoped that celebrating Christmas would have eased the pressure of dealing with a year marked by unprecedented challenges.
As it turned out, Christmas is just one more of a series of virus-related setbacks.
"I just hope it’s over soon," Bailey said.
In an era when the new normal is abnormal, some families are insistent on maintaining normalcy.
As she has for years, Donna Kunkle began preparing for Christmas early.
Even before Thanksgiving, she had finished her Christmas shopping.
Christmas dinner is already in the freezer of her Tilden Township farmstead.
And Kunkle insists she’ll decorate a real live evergreen for Christmas.
"We’re going to do Christmas as always," Kunkle said. "Life is too short not to."
With her brother and sister, Kunkle and her husband, Dennis, will spend Christmas with her father, Clair Miller, in Centre Township.
The day after Thanksgiving, the Kunkles began decorating their house with Christmas lights.
In these troubled times, Kunkle said, putting up the Christmas lights is more important than ever.
"Seeing the lights on our house," she said, "makes me feel happy."
Richard Miller's brother Lester, who's 86, acknowledges that it’s unlikely that his 29 great-grandchildren are going to show up for Christmas at his Greenwich Township home, as most of them had in the past.
That’s no reason, Miller says, not to celebrate Christmas as usual.
Miller, a retired businessman, has crafted tiny wooden Christmas trees in his workshop and decorated them with lights. With hundreds of lights strung on the Miller house, the tiny trees are a beacon of hope on a rural Berks County landscape.
"We’re going to keep going on with life as normal as possible for as long as possible," Miller insists.
Piercing the darkness
After 34 years as pastor of two Lutheran churches in Brooklyn, N.Y., Richard Miller retired and returned to his native Berks County in 2003.
He preaches only occasionally, but were he to deliver a Christmas message it would be one of hope.
"At times, it feels like there is a dark cloud hanging over us," he said. "But even in the midst of darkness, there’s light."
The lights on a Christmas tree or the candlelight of a church service, Miller said, are symbols of a deeper spiritual message that’s particularly relevant this season.
"God is with us," he said. "He will come into the darkness with his light."