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Christmas, again

Something about Christmas brings out the way each of us feels about the odd process of being human. It is especially true this year, amid a stubbornly persistent pandemic and a burgeoning culture war in which all sides see themselves as champions of the beleaguered masses. Not much can be said about the pandemic, which seems to embody every horror film ever made in which the not-yet-vanquished monster rises, incredibly, again. Covid is the Freddy Krueger of diseases. The most telling aspect is that has been subsumed and conscripted into the service of the culture war, no longer standing on its own as an issue.

You might say the same for the Christmas season. But somehow the “War on Christmas” doesn’t quite resonate, possibly because the day itself has long since devolved into a market holiday. The season, however, remains the focus of reflection on the human condition, there being no shortage of winter milestones to mark in other religious traditions.

To me, the story that most closely aligns with the sentiments associated with Christmas occurred on Christmas day in 1914. World War I had begun in earnest, and, five months into it, had settled into a war of attrition. Both sides pulled back to reconsider their strategies, to regroup and rearm in the days leading up to the holidays. Troops on both sides took the opportunity to relax their guard, and even to climb out of the trenches for a breather. By the time Christmas itself came around things had become almost casual. Soldiers who had been blowing each other up a few weeks before exchanged pleasantries, and at one point even a friendly soccer game broke out. The good will lasted only until the end of the day. By nightfall, the killing resumed in full force.

Optimists see this as proof that, given the chance, people will live harmoniously with each other, realizing that their common interests far outweigh their differences. Pessimists, of course, will focus on the fact that after a brief lull to catch their breaths, soldiers returned to the grim task of eliminating each other with gusto once again.

Like most things in life, it’s not as simple as either side would like to think. Instead, the incident illustrates the push and pull of our social natures. We strive to belong but belonging to one group implies rejection of other groups. And so, we have this odd dance of love and hate, and we need to reconcile the two. But how?

This is where the story reflects the reality of the human condition to perfection. The violence is paused for a brief interlude of camaraderie, and then resumes, allowing us to congratulate ourselves and then carry on with the killing.

That this story has become a part of Christmas mythology, and in the retelling affirms our belief in ourselves as just and loving underneath it all, allows us to pick up where we left off once the season is over.

Good hunting to you and watch your back.

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