Some will read that and wonder what kind of scrooge I must be to say such a thing.
It’s not that I don’t like the idea of Christmas. I do. I like it very much. My heart is always deeply moved as it ponders the possibility of peace, joy and harmony between us individual human beings and between races, classes and nations of people. It’s a wonderful and beautiful concept, a model, really, of how we ought to see and treat each other every day. And the underlying belief, the foundational belief that the divine has pulled down and will continue obstinately to pull down the barriers you and I throw up every day makes the heart swell with humility and gratitude.
Christmas, to me, memorializes a magnanimous gift of the divine, a gift so obscure in its origin and so outrageous in its scope that it defies our puny understanding, a gift lavished upon us without regard to whether we’ve been naughty or nice. It memorializes a gift which we cannot consume but which, instead, consumes us.
So, yes, I like the idea and the promise of Christmas. I just don’t care much for what we’ve done with it. Christmas is a season of the heart, a season when the heart is especially encouraged to listen beyond its own selfish beating to hear the soft, sweet song of the divine. I’m not going to subject you to a rant about how we have taken this season of the heart and turned it into an orgy of consumption. I will content myself with that mini-rant and tell you a story. You may have heard it before, but I’ll tell it again.
This is a condensed and simplified version of what became known as the Christmas Truce. During the week before Christmas, 1914, during the First World War, at various points along the battle lines British troops in their trenches heard singing coming from the German trenches on the other side of the no-man’s land – the killing zone – which separated them. They recognized the songs as Christmas Carols. The British troops began to sing carols, too. Before long the opposing troops were shouting Christmas greetings to each other. On Christmas Eve men on both sides eased out of their trenches and joined their adversaries in the no-man’s land. In the center of the killing zone, they laid down their weapons, shook each other’s hands, exchanged simple gifts of food and cigarettes and sang Christmas carols.
All were soldiers, men who were doing their duty to their respective nations. That which united them: their common Christianity, was able to unite them for only a few hours. That which divided them: their common humanity, sent them back to their trenches and back to their devoted efforts to kill each other.
There is an element of deep sadness in that story. But there is an element of hope, too. Warring factions laid down their weapons and opened their arms to their enemies. Yes, it was brief, but it could never have happened at all, never in a million years, if the spirit of Christmas had not briefly taken sole possession of the hearts of those men. There is much hope there.
I’m not going to wish you Merry Christmas or happy holidays. I’m going to wish you a season of the heart. If you have that, you’ll have the others.