Christmases have marked the inner passage of history, recording the parts that leave no physical trace and working like a bellwether of civilization’s hopes and fears. In the first year of the Great War, the truce of 1914 served as a kind of looking back, a goodbye to all that, a phantom limb, a brief pause before the combatants plunged into implacable hatred. Soldiers on the Western front climbed out into No Man’s Land from force of habit. “There were joint burial ceremonies and prisoner swaps, while several meetings ended in carol-singing.” In short it was everything sacred that they were about to profane.
Then came a carnage so great that F. Scott Fitzgerald feared the old world could never be rebuilt.
“This western-front business couldn’t be done again … This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties … You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers. …
Why, this was a love battle–there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle.”
But that fear proved unfounded. As Michael Crichton observed, life finds a way. Within 20 years after the First War it rebuilt the human fabric to the point where people could acutely anticipate the loss of love and family once more. The Chicago Tribune, in a retrospective of December 1941, noted how desperately people clung to the preciously familiar on the brink of the abyss.
“We wondered if we would get the oranges, the nuts in a box, the pajamas and slippers we would always get,” Fricke said. “There were plenty of somber questions.” …
“I noticed how much stronger people felt about their faith,” Fricke said of that Christmastime. …
One newspaper called it a “strange, dark Christmas,” and said the only gift people really wanted was peace on Earth. …
Art Nylen, 85, who grew up in Chicago’s Roseland community, remembers that Christmas was kind of an escape from the worries of the world for people … “The war was out of your mind for a day.”
Yet again life found a way. By 1943 the somberness had been lightened with an element of hope. Although the dark night of WW2 was far from over, there was a sense that the Hinge of Fate had been turned. Once again the holiday reflected the change. Bing Crosby’s “I’ll be Home for Christmas” climbed to near the top of the charts in 1943. “The song is sung from the point of view of a soldier stationed overseas during World War II,” and the refrain “‘I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams'” reflected a sense of expectation they had heretofore not dared feel.
Perhaps it’s no accident that life has again found a way. The “first Christmas in Mosul since ISIS were driven out of shattered Iraqi city” was covered extensively by the press. The occasion itself was unprepossessing yet it was as if journalists sensed it was fraught with symbolic and emotional power they could not ignore.
Christians celebrated Christmas in Iraq’s second city of Mosul for the first time in four years today – and hymns and cries of joy flooded the church.
The seasonal event marked the end of jihadist rule in the city and the Mass opened with the Iraqi national anthem as women wailed with emotion.
Despite the modest interior of the church and the armoured police outside, wheelchair-bound Hossam Abud, 48, who returned this month from exile in Iraqi Kurdistan, said: ‘This is a sign that life is returning to Mosul.’
It would not be so mysterious if journalists thought of Christmas as playing a role analogous to the fictional baseball field in the movie Field of Dreams: not a place or day but a reverie. To paraphrase the famous speech to Ray, when people come to Christmas, even in Mosul, “it’ll be as they’d dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. … It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again.” But Christmas has marked the time.
Marked the time because, as C.S. Lewis once adventured, Christmas is not an idealized memory of childhood but of something glimpsed in childhood.
These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
Yet even as Christians and their Muslim neighbors celebrate in the ruins of Mosul, a number of U.S. academic institutions are paradoxically bent on abolishing Christmas itself, bent on purging it of all historical, cultural or religious content, ostensibly to avoid triggering people, but really because they object to idea of content in the first place. “At the University of California, Irvine … individual departments are encouraged to … have a ‘year-end celebration’ or celebrate ‘seasonal themes such as fall, winter, or spring.'”
Perhaps no one illustrated the tendency to make Christmas just another random scheduled event more vividly than a University of Central Florida faculty member’s proposal, which suggests “Happy Federal Holiday” as an alternative to Merry Christmas, making all holidays meaningful by refusing to single out one for celebration.
Couldn’t “Happy Holidays” be the most inclusive greeting because it is so non-specific? Yes, perhaps, but it is the non-specificity of “Happy Holidays” that makes it inappropriate because it fails to recognize the importance of Christmas to Christians while it also suggests that Chanukah should be more important to Jews than the high holidays and festivals that come at other times during the year.
I would suggest that we take a new approach that observes “the holidays” we all have on our calendars, no matter our religion.
My friends and I wish each other a “Happy Federal Holiday.”
In our efforts to be inclusive, we show cultural insensitivity both by equating one major holiday with a minor holiday and failing to recognize that diversity includes those who celebrate neither holiday.
“Happy Federal Holiday” is about as information empty as you can get and perhaps that is deliberate. It advances not just another phrase, but a completely different world view, a universe safely empty of everything but numbers on a calendar.
Eventually anyone indoctrinated in this tradition will find accounts of the Federal Holiday Truce of 1914 or “I’ll be Home for the Federal Holiday of 1943” hard to comprehend. Nor will they be able to understand why anyone in Mosul should want to observe the Federal Holiday of 2017. Yet how could it be otherwise? To understand history one has to understand why such events as Christmas are and you cannot do that in a meaning-free universe.
The effort to erase Christmas will probably fail for no other reason than that it meets a human need that a mechanical bureaucratic day off cannot fulfill. Humanity needs a time to mark the growth and change in the family, an occasion to renew hopes and put aside fears and a chance to remember something we once knew: that everything’s going to be alright in the end. It really will.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
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The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945, by James D. Hornfischer. From the historian who has been acclaimed as “doing for the Navy what popular historian Stephen Ambrose did for the Army,” here is an unprecedented account of the extraordinary World War II air, land, and sea campaign that brought the U.S. Navy to the apex of its strength and marked the rise of the United States as a global superpower.
The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, Author Mike Duncan brings to life the bloody battles, political machinations, and human drama that set the stage for the fall of the Roman Republic. Chronicling the years 146-78 BC, he showed how, abandoning the ancient principles of their forbears, men like Marius, Sulla, and the Gracchi brothers set dangerous new precedents that would start the Republic on the road to destruction and provide a stark warning about what can happen to a civilization that has lost its way.
Grant, by Ron Chernow. This book is a grand synthesis of painstaking research and literary brilliance that makes sense of all sides of Grant’s life, explaining how this simple Midwesterner could at once be so ordinary and so extraordinary. Named one of the best books of the year.
Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson. This biograpy of history’s most creative genius is based on thousands of pages from Leonardo’s astonishing notebooks and new discoveries about his life and work. Isaacson weaves a narrative that connects his art to his science and shows how Leonardo’s genius was based on skills we can improve in ourselves, such as passionate curiosity, careful observation, and an imagination so playful that it flirted with fantasy.
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The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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