Around Christmas Day, in 1914 during World War I, the combatants reached a truce in a number of places along the Western Front.
The holiday spirit led to a temporary halt in the fighting. German and British troops sang carols, and some soldiers reportedly came out of their trenches, shook hands, wished one another “Merry Christmas” in their native languages and even exchanged gifts.
Christmas is both a sacred holiday and a secular celebration. Around the globe, the occasion is observed in various ways for various reasons, but it elicits the same basic responses: joy, peace and generosity.
These themes are echoed in Jesus’ Nativity, which Christians mark during Christmas.
In Luke’s account of Christ’s birth, an angel appears to shepherds and says, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.” A child was born. He was the promised Messiah, whose coming was foretold centuries before in Hebrew scriptures. He was to save the world. The prophet Isaiah called him the “Prince of Peace.” This birth signaled the beginning of God’s plan to redeem humankind. Thus, people of faith view Jesus as a gift from God.
Secularly, Christmas is marked by Santa, who epitomizes joy and generosity.
The Santa legend can be traced back to a monk named St. Nicholas. He is believed to have given away his inherited wealth and traveled around helping the poor and the sick. The modern-day, gift-giving “jolly old St. Nick” became popular in the 19th century; similar characters existed around the world. The commercial phenomenon that has become Christmas has Santa as its standard-bearer.
Whether one celebrates the birth of Jesus or anticipates the arrival of Santa, Christmas truly brings out the best in humanity. People give more, love more and go out of their way to help the less fortunate. Homes are decorated with Christmas trees, bright lights and Nativity sets in hopes of spreading Christmas cheer. Strangers smile and wish one another well.
But, much like the Christmas Truce of 1914, after the presents are unwrapped, the guests have gone and the lights, trees and crèches are packed away, the world returns to normalcy — the rest of the year can be anything but merry. It is unfortunate that the good we see at Christmas is only temporary.
I am not suggesting a year-round Christmas celebration. Few of us could tolerate being around extended family for that long, the overindulgence or the numerous renditions of the same holiday songs. But it would be a welcome change if this year — after the symbols of Christmas vanish — the joy, the peace and the generosity stuck around.