HARLINGEN — They danced.

They ate pizza and cake, played games and sang karaoke.

The kids at the LeMoyne Gardens Unit of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harlingen celebrated Christmas in grand style Wednesday, in keeping with their traditional parties every holiday season.

“Usually for Christmas, what we do for the kids is, we have them make bags and bring stockings so that we can fill them up,” said DeeAndra Gathright, youth development professional.

“Every kid here gets a gift from us or from people that have donated,” Gathright said. “The kids had a blast.”

One year ago today, families everywhere mourned the loss of their big family gatherings as they sheltered in place during the dark hours of the COVID pandemic. It was a bleak time — a darkness seemed to have swept the world as everyone faced an uncertain future.

No one knew what was going to happen. They wondered if there would ever be a Christmas filled with smiles and holiday dinners, good vibes and the intimacy of friends and relatives.

But a year later, many families are gathering, all the while still maintaining precautions in light of the omicron variant.

Dr. Christopher Romero, medical director of PanAmerican Clinical Research in Brownsville, is himself enjoying the company of relatives as they all sit down for dinner.

“This year, I will be blessed to be able to spend Christmas with not only my immediate family but also my parents and my in-laws,” Romero said. “Last year we did not get together with my parents on Christmas. We just kept it small, and it was hard.”

Romero cautioned, however, that “we are nowhere near out of the woods.”

“We will remain cautious,” he said. “If anybody does come down with cold and flu systems they will be tested, because testing is readily available in our community, and we will still take all precautions not to expose anybody unnecessarily. My parents are older, they have health issues, and the last thing I want is for a beautiful day of fellowship to degrade into a family tragedy.”

Nevertheless, today it’s a very different world than it was a year ago.

“My whole family is vaccinated and those that are eligible have been able to get the booster shot,” he said. “For me, as an emotional and personal milestone, my son, he’s six years old and he’s now fully vaccinated, and it’s going to be a great time.”

Heightened concerns over the omicron variant still has many people keeping their gatherings small.

“This year my family is actually keeping it very low key, just my sister, and my mom and my dad,” said Sandra Luna, physical education teacher and enrichment coordinator at Lee H. Means Elementary School.

“We’re not risking especially with the new omicron out there,” Luna said. “We do have big gatherings because we do have a huge family, but I think every family is keeping it just their own personal families.”

Romero said he believes the omicron variant, being highly contagious, has probably arrived in the Rio Grande Valley.

“I haven’t seen the report that it’s officially here, but given the rate of spread in the Houston metroplex area, if it hasn’t been technically detected, I’m pretty sure it’s already here,” he said.

As for how dangerous it is, the jury is still out.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that it will not be as severe as other variants have been,” he said. “The thing we can do is, of course, continue to pay attention to the commonsense measures of, ‘If you’re sick, don’t spread it around. If you do come down with symptoms, get tested, and if it’s positive for COVID, definitely avoid others until you recover.’”

He encouraged everyone to use the holiday season to heal the emotional scares of the pandemic, which are legion.

“I hope that everybody does take advantage of these opportunities to just spend time with their loved ones over the holidays,” he said. “Our area has been hard hit. The number of families who have lost individuals is just extremely high. There’s healing that needs to occur.”