Christmas is a festival of Christian origin, celebrating the birth of Jesus, who is – according to Christians’ faith – the Son of God. While the actual birth day of Jesus is unknown (not only the day but the exact year of his birth is also uncertain), celebrating the event on December 25 (and on the eve preceding that day) is a long-lasting tradition that goes back to the first centuries AD.
In recent centuries, Christmas celebrations embraced secular elements, like the decorated Christmas tree or the exchange of gifts. Thus, it became a festival of universal nature celebrated in many countries worldwide, even those without deep-rooted Christian traditions.
But Christmas days have not always been undisturbed throughout the years. In some terrible times and some unfortunate places, wars, pandemics, and natural catastrophes have overshadowed Christmas and made peaceful celebrations impossible.
One example is the battle of Hong Kong in World War II, which started just after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941. The fighting lasted only a few weeks, as Japanese forces had an overwhelming advantage, forcing the Allies to surrender on Christmas day.
The worst natural disaster in Turkey’s history hit the country on the night of 26/27 December 1939. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake claimed over 30,000 lives and crushed the city of Erzincan flat. So extensive was the damage that its old site was entirely abandoned, and a new settlement was founded a little further to the north.
The coasts of the Indian Ocean were devastated by the ‘Boxing Day Tsunami’ on December 26, 2004, which killed an estimated 228,000 people in 14 countries, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history.
Yet Christmas is so deep in our hearts that even among the worst conditions, we insist on celebrating it and do not yield to whatever enemy jeopardizes the Christmas spirit. Internal peace and affection shall come to light, no matter how dark it is outside.
A genuinely touching story – cited here from history.com – is the “Christmas truce of 1914” during World War I, when the sounds of rifles firing and shells exploding faded in several places along the Western Front in favor of holiday celebrations. On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested a temporary hiatus of the war for the celebration of Christmas. The warring countries refused to create any official cease-fire, but on Christmas the soldiers in the trenches declared their own unofficial truce. Starting on Christmas Eve, many German and British troops fighting in World War I sang Christmas carols to each other across the lines, and at certain points the Allied soldiers even heard brass bands joining the Germans in their joyous singing.
At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s-land, calling out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ native tongues. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed, they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers. The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs. Some Germans lit Christmas trees around their trenches, and there was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer. German Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch recalled: “How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”
The list of Christmas’s enemies is, unfortunately, longer than we may imagine. It is not only armed conflicts, natural disasters, or pandemics that are lurking to destroy the celebration. Ideological misconduct may also find religious events, including Christmas “harmful and threatening.” During the communist era in Hungary and the entire Soviet bloc, the regime’s desired goal was to eradicate all religious thinking and behaviors and replace them with atheism, the base for communist ideology and autocratic structures of society.
Christmas was enemy No. 1. Celebrating Jesus’ birth was seen as a superstitious aberration, contradicting the trust in the omnipotent communist power. It was also regarded as a threat posed by the Church “trying to utilize the religious spirit of the people and especially trying to get close to the youth.” Desacralization of Christmas was in full swing during the communist era: Christmas was converted to the “Feast of Love” and the “Feast of the Fir.” Gifts and goodies were brought to children by the ‘Télapó,’ Ded Moroz, the pagan mythical figure that substituted Santa Claus and Jesus in their role of practicing goodwill. The third and fourth Sundays of Advent were renamed to ‘Silver Sunday’ and ‘Golden Sunday.’ The public holiday was shortened from 2 days to 1, in claims that it was ‘too much for manpower to be out of production’ for such a long time. As a symbolic act, Prince Primate Cardinal József Mindszenty, the Hungarian Catholic Church leader, was arrested on December 26, 1948, based on unrealistic treason and conspiracy accusations against the new People’s Republic of Hungary. It was a brutal ideological war against religion, regarded as an unwanted risk to the supreme power of Communism. After 1956, the tight grip loosened, and people could even go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, without facing severe consequences.
This year another disaster wreaks havoc, the coronavirus pandemic. Early in spring, we would not have imagined that the pandemic would influence Christmas celebrations in our worst dreams. Yet it has become a reality now. In Germany, and the Netherlands, high coronavirus case levels made the decision about a possible holiday lull painfully tough. In the United Kingdom, mutant coronavirus has set off alarms, although its importance remains unclear. Italy urged a lockdown to avoid ‘national tragedy.’ Restrictions had to be drastically tightened as the death toll this year would be highest since WWII. Governments were under huge pressure to review plans aimed at easing lockdown rules for the Christmas period. Several European countries have imposed tighter restrictions ahead of the festive season.
We must be alert and remain cautious, no matter how painful it is to put Christmas gatherings and rituals aside. But we can look at the courage of those who celebrated Christmas during difficult times. Not even this tiny, invisible, ferocious virus will stop the Christmas spirit, simply because our desire and insistence for the celebration is even stronger.
Featured image: Yuganov Konstantin, Shutterstock