“So this is Christmas
And what have you done?
Another year over
And a new one just begun”
— John Lennon, from the song Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
And so after a month of preparing for its arrival, we’ve come to another Christmas. It’s this day that the Christian world celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. In our traditionally sung Christmas carols we imagine the night he was born as silent, calm and bright, with heralded angels proclaiming peace on earth in honor of the Prince of Peace. One stanza from the carol “O Holy Night” begins by saying that Jesus truly “taught us to love one another.” Even on the secular side there’s a popular song that calls Christmas the most wonderful day of the year.
Whether we’re focused on its spiritual meaning or helping our children fulfill a fantasy of wishes, Christmas is indeed a very special holiday. It’s the busiest season for travel as families and friends reunite with loved ones in distant places. And it’s the time of year when our collective generosity shines the brightest on those among us who haven’t been so fortunate.
But if Christmas is truly the most wonderful day of the year, then the crest of excitement we rode into the holiday must be followed by a return to the trough of everyday life. This kind of emotional letdown is a psychological necessity so that we can appreciate what happiness really means. If we don’t resist sinking into it then we’re able to reflect on the real meaning of the holiday. What is it about the Christmas season that we wish could continue into the following weeks and months?
Just as Christmas can magnify the difference between true joy and states of depression, we might turn to the darker side of life to better comprehend their relative place in our sense of reality. Consider this passage from “The Things They Carried,” a collection of short stories by Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien. He describes being trapped under heavy gunfire in a rice paddy when “for a few seconds everything goes quiet and you look up and see the sun and a few puffy white clouds, and the immense serenity flashes against your eyeballs — the whole world gets rearranged — and even though you’re pinned down by a war you never felt more at peace.”
There was an event almost a century ago when soldiers must have felt a similar kind of absolute peace. Officers on both sides of the World War I battlefields gave their men a reprieve from a war in the trenches by agreeing to a temporary truce on Christmas day. No shots were fired for two days. Instead, soldiers sang Christmas songs and exchanged small souvenirs and cigarettes with their enemy. A French officer proclaimed “for an instant, the God of goodwill was once more master of this corner of the earth.” Lance Cpl. RS Coulson wrote to his mother in England that the day would “live in history as one of the most remarkable incidents of the war.”
In that midst of that miracle the hope of all soldiers must have been that Christmas would never end. So imagine the utter disappointment they felt when the war resumed late on the night of Dec. 26.
Of course, no one should need to experience war to understand the real meaning of peace. The idea is to imagine the experience of every soldier who has survived combat as a way to give relative value to the letdown we feel after Christmas. It may also help us understand that the deeper metaphor of our disappointment may be about the unanswered calls of Jesus and all the world’s peacemakers since his time.
Christmas is supposed to be about giving. If we believe that America has been really blessed with abundance, then collectively don’t we have more to give the world? And if peace on earth is one of the primary messages in our most beloved Christmas carols, then shouldn’t we strive to help turn such a dream into reality? So on the days following this Christmas consider letting the emotional dip be an opportunity to reflect on how you can contribute to creating a more peaceful world.
• Moniak is a Juneau resident.