Connoisseurs of irony can delight in the fact that, in famously under-churched Seattle, plenty of apparently extraneous gifts are leaving the stores and malls, scenes that do little to conjure the true spirit of the season.
But dedicated ironists might consider, in the spirit of the season, observing a ceasefire in the culture wars, brought front and center in the recent election season.
The observances of December — the Dec. 8 through 16 Hanukkah celebration; winter solstice on Dec. 21 and Christmas four days later — are all about light.
Hanukkah is the Jewish world’s remembrance of the menorah that burned for eight days on a single day’s worth of oil; the solstice marks our long march back toward summer. Christians celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus Christ beneath the star of Bethlehem. All three occasions reflect the sacredness of light and humanity’s longing, in the face of daily business or the ultimate mystery, for meaning.
To that end, we would do well to pause and look back to something that happened nearly a century ago in 1914.
On the first Christmas of World War I, British, French, German and Austrian soldiers laid down their arms all along the Western Front and gathered in the wasteland of no man’s land to exchange gifts, play soccer and sing carols.
The last surviving participant of that occasion, a Scotsman named Alfred Anderson, died in 2005 at age 109.
“I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence,” Anderson told a British reporter the year before he died. Trigger fingers were used to shake hands and doubled fists relaxed into open palms — earthly manifestations of the Sermon on the Mount.
The power elites in the European capital crushed the revolt — for that’s what it amounted to — with frightened ruthlessness. We know how the story ends.
But the ceasefire really happened — as if the iron laws of gravity and human nature had been repealed.
“It is one thing to introduce a new doctrine into the world,” Kierkegaard wrote. “It is another thing to live it.”
For one brief, shining spot, along the Western Front, the killing business as usual took a holiday. The brief truce, a Christmas miracle on Earth, affords us an enduring glimpse of life’s possibilities.
When we look around Seattle and see so many good people working selflessly for their communities or just going about their lives, we recall the Jewish injunction to repair the world and Christ’s admonition to love one’s neighbor.
It’s not always easy, but the possibility is always there, always with us, like the brief silence heard on the Western Front that Christmas day nearly a century ago.