Christmas Gives Peace a Chance

December 23, 2008

My grandfather George Jones of Harrington, PEI, and Rouleau, Sask., was the first to tell me about how, even at the heights of the Great War, the killing would stop for Christmas. I can no longer recall all of his exact words, but the phrase “the German boys” was never spoken in the tone you would expect from a man who spent part of his youth avoiding death at their hands and who had taken one of their bullets in his thigh.

He would only tell us happy stories about learning to speak French with pretty girls and how at Christmas the artillery and the sniper fire fell silent and you could hear “the German boys” entrenched nearby singing carols in their language. The Canadian boys would sing back in theirs. When Christmas was over and the next day dawned, the slaughter would resume.

You can, if you wish, decide that this is the height of hypocrisy. It is intellectually and morally bizarre after all that people could mutually understand that the day which celebrates the birth of Jesus was too holy for killing but that the next day and one before were not. I doubt that thought was lost on “the boys” in the trenches.

An alternative view, perhaps more hopeful, was put forward in the early 20th century by novelist and journalist G.K. Chesterton when he said “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult, and not tried.”

No matter one’s take, Christmas was a cultural symbol powerful enough to make people in the midst of an all out war the likes of which the world had never seen lay down their weapons at the behest of 2,000-year-old words attributed to an angel: “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” Almost 100 years later, the most noticeable feature of Christmas Day remains the unique nature of its quiet. It is very clearly not the calm of Labour Day or Thanksgiving. Canada Day is really not quiet at all, but everything stops at Christmas; its quiet is as metaphysical as it is auditory. It is as if we are meant to be still and know something.

When I was small and only people in emergency and vital public services had to work on Sundays – before we were “free” - we were more used to quiet, more “stillness.” It gave us time and it gave us space. At night it was dark and even in most cities we could see the stars and wonder or tremble depending on our predispositions. In the day, we did not have to peer through the yellow soup of smog to see the sun. Most of our lives now are dominated by noises of which we are no longer even concious - the whir of computers, the roar of “white noise” that you can only hear when it stops: at Christmas.

Few are so hideous as the battles my grandfather’s and father’s generations fought and are played out today by my children’s generation in Afghanistan, but we are all fighting battles. Some are for power or for the ascendancy of our ideas. Some are for financial survival. Some are for emotional contentment. Some are fighting to mend that which within and around us is broken and, try as we might, we just can’t seem to put back together again. Some of us are fighting to get what we want and believe it is actually what we need. Some of us are fighting just to hold back the tears. For Christians, Christmas is the alpha of the alpha, the moment when the Greek “logos” – the source of the principle governing the cosmos and human reasoning – became flesh and brought the promise of light and redemption. For others, it may have evolved to be about the generosity of sharing gifts as expressions of love with family and friends. All of these are socially virtuous activities that enhance our culture through a shared sense of the need to call a truce, even if for just one day each year, and acknowledge a shared appreciation for peace, for hope and for goodwill.

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, Christmas is, if false, of no importance. If true, it is of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.

We should make sure we treat it that way.