The season always carries a special freight of recollections, most of them private but all of them entangled with the public events that mark the years. All of them hint at their own lessons, and the season imposes an obligation to keep them in mind. A year ago, the great preoccupation in this country was the seizure of American hostages by Iranian revolutionaries. There was a rumor over the holidays that most of the hostages were about to be released. It was a reasonable hope. But even reasonable hopes are sometimes disappointed.

Ten years ago, the celebration of peace and good will was overshadowed by war, and the war was one that most Americans wanted badly to shut off. There were American prisoners in foreign hands then, too. The holiday newspapers reported that the secretary of state had accused the North Vietnamese of using the American prisoners of war as political pawns. Eventually, although it took longer than most people had expected in late 1970, the war did indeed end and the prisoners did come home. Honest memory won't allow easy cyncism. Hope very often is fulfilled, particularly when it's supported by patience and steadfast purpose.

If you rummage back through memory and the files to this date 25 years ago, you will find the papers full of anxiety for peace in the Middle East and descriptions of misbehavior in the United Nations. Some things don't change much. But you will also find profoundly dismaying descriptions of the politics of race in the United States. A church organization had just accused white politicians of running a "reign of terror" in one of the southern states. The terror, not to mention, the politicians, have long since faded. Some things, it appears, do change dramatically for the better. The message of the season is that you can never know until long afterward what can't be changed and what really can -- and so you do what you can, where you can, sustained by hope rather than by fast results for the monthly report.

Yesterday at lunch time, under an awning at Connecticut Avenue and M Street, a brass quintet was playing carols. It was a glorious sound. The weather was vile -- steady rain, and the temperature just dropping below freezing. In the national manner, everybody except the musicians was in a big hurry to get somewhere else. But the music caught people for a moment, perhaps reminding some, in the midst of a busy day, where they were going and why. You hardly need to be told that it wasn't the Muzaked pap that's been whining through the shopping centers' loudspeakers since mid-October. It was the muscular and triumphant music of high celebration.

Nothing beats brasses for the carols. A bypasser recalled hearing a similar brass group play the same music from a Central European church tower on the same date more than a generation ago. Europe -- bombed, wrecked, destitute, a land of the bereaved and the homeless -- was celebrating a birth and a promise. That is the nature of the occasion. It promises new beginnings, new courage and new hope. That was the message of those three trumpets and two trombones in the rain on the street corner, which makes their concert one of the more significant events of the day.