Sliding into this particular Christmas season feels odd to me. Odd at best and utterly disingenuous at worst. Honestly, there hasn’t been much in 2017 that’s been very holly-jolly. The threat of nuclear war, rampant sexual assault accusations, domestic terrorism in the form of mass shootings and the embarrassment that is the current White House have me disinclined to sing carols and spout, “God bless us every one!” At least it’s not been a boring year.
I can’t figure out if the myriad ugly events of 2017 created the entrenched, divisive opinions currently slicing up the country or if they’ve always been there and 2017 tore away some kind of politeness curtain and simply revealed them. Either way, they’ve produced sobering revelations that are difficult to understand. White supremacy is still a big thing in America, for example. How is it possible that such hard-hearted hatred entered the realm of legitimate civil discourse? And Russia, despite the end of the Cold War, is still foreign enemy No. 1. And Russia appears to have outsmarted us. They’ve taken the White House. Or, more accurately, we’ve handed the White House to them. So the Red House now? Oof.
We bring all of 2017’s accumulated baggage into Advent, the official lead-up to Christmas in the Christian tradition. I’m no expert on the liturgical year, but my understanding of Advent, generally, is that it’s supposed to be this intentional time of contemplation and anticipation. A reminder, in a sense, that we can’t have all that we want exactly when we want it. I remember sitting in church as a kid watching the lighting of the first Advent candle and thinking, “Four freaking weeks till Christmas. I’ll never make it.”
If you’re a Christian person, Advent means awaiting the birth of the Christ child, the one God sent to save the world. But I wonder if God might say: “Sure, sure, you get the salvation. But not before you figure out exactly why you need it. I wouldn’t send a Savior to perfect people. Think about it.”
Christian or not, Advent provides a fantastic opportunity for serious introspection in the midst of holiday hoopla and the general disarray that is America these days. We could use the season to figure out who we are, as individuals, families and fellow citizens—to each other and to those we’ve set up as our enemies. And certainly, if 2017 has done nothing else, it’s clarified for each and every one of us exactly who are enemies are. Our personal enemies, our political enemies, our religious enemies, and on and on. Each of us might allow ourselves the question “Why might somebody consider me an enemy?” It’s much easier to make enemies than to make friends, and 2017 seems to have been a year for all of us to take that rain-slicked low road to enmity.
We’ve all probably heard the story of the World War I Christmas truce, but if not, here’s my historically shaky recall. Real historians can correct me where I get things wrong. It was Christmastime, 1914. Europe was locked in a war that would prove just how good human beings are at destroying, completely and utterly, buildings and roads and livestock and forests and resources and economies and, most frighteningly, each other.
But one night, in the midst of rifle cracks, pounding mortar shells and the screams of the dying, there came singing. I imagine both British and German (America hadn’t yet joined the war) soldiers casting askew glances at one another. But then, they ventured out of their trenches to meet each other in no man’s land. In the middle of the mud and blood and bodies, they played soccer and told stories and sang Christmas carols together.
It’d be nice if that put an end to things then and there, as it seems it should have, but eventually, the British and the Germans returned to their respective trenches and continued laying waste to one another. In fact, the war raged for another four years and millions more died.
So what was the point of that spontaneous Christmas truce? Surely neither the British nor the Germans were naïve enough to believe a few isolated moments of decency were enough to end a global war. Imagine shaking hands in complete sincerity today with the person who would, in complete sincerity tomorrow, shove a bayonet through your heart.
That Christmas truce was an absolute necessity for those soldiers in the same way breathing is necessary for life. They’d begun to suffocate in inhumanity. They must have realized that if they didn’t do it, they might physically survive the war, but their humanity would have vaporized on the battlefield. They might as well have died facedown in the mud.
Fortunately, our circumstances aren’t that dire, but similar principles are certainly at work. We have a long way to go before we settle gun violence. The Russia investigation will get even nastier before it resolves, however it resolves. All that divides us at present won’t go away just because it’s Christmas. But the season of Advent affords us time for contemplation and a forward look to a better us, in a better future. If we do it right, if we sift ourselves in an honest way, I wonder what bits of our humanity we’ll discover that we share in common with others, even the ones we’d least expect. Probably worth considering.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, “Animal Heart,” is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.