Celebrating the holiday season…and yet

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
December 4th, 2023

The holiday season is upon us. We are in the thick of it with Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Diwali behind us and Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza looming ahead. Feasts of saints, harvest and light remind us that good triumphs over evil and though the light may fade, it never fails. The earth will swing around the far turn of its orbit and present its face to the sun as it does every year, its face, our faces, warmed once again by the light. And so we celebrate, trick or treat, give thanks, deck the halls, and light the lights. This is a time for joy.

And yet…

As I write these reflections, the world is exploding. The war in Ukraine has been raging for nearly two years with an estimated 500,000 military casualties on both sides as of August 2023 and 9,000 deaths and 17,000 injuries among civilians as of September.

On October 7, 2023, Hamas forces killed 1,400 people in Israel and took another 240 as hostages. Since then, approximately 10,000 people in Gaza have been killed in the Israeli counteroffensive although some believe that the number has been inflated. It is difficult to know the truth anymore, but the situation is dire and even one violent death on either side is one too many.

A colleague in Tel Aviv writes, “ Dear Friends, We are here in the midst of a war for our lives. For many it is already too late.” Her cousin was among those killed in the October 7 Hamas attack that destroyed the Beeri kibbutz.

Our polarized country is becoming even more divided as people take sides without the benefit of knowing how to talk to one another or, perhaps, knowing but preferring to act out their rage in violent words and actions directed at Jews and Palestinians.

The face of anti-Semitism shows itself once more in its ugly display on our streets and college campuses. You would think educated people would know better.

“Keep safe,” my friend in Tel Aviv concludes. Compared to life in a war zone, our country is a place of safety, and then the news breaks that 18 people were killed by a gunman in Lewiston, Maine. Not Maine, we think, where the sign welcoming tourists at the state line reads, “Welcome to Maine. Life as it should be.”

The message rings true and matches my experience of tall pines, rocky shores, lobster rolls, art galleries, and warmhearted friends. The truth, as much as we try to avoid or deny it, is that this fragile picture can be shattered in an instant in a hail of bullets, even in a place as beautiful and peaceful as Maine.

And yet…

Here come the trick or treaters, the annual ritual starting with a block party drawing hundreds of kids and adults to our quiet street to begin their house-to-house sally. Witches, goblins, princesses, superheroes, cartoon characters, and icons of pop culture that I could not begin to guess, all show up at our door. The little ones come with their parents at their sides or watching from the pavement, the older kids, in small groups.

Super Mario comes alone and tells me that he somehow lost Luigi. Yet he is smiling, perhaps expecting his partner’s share of the Halloween treats.

When the pretzels and candy run out, we are down to cheese balls. Ugh, a little rabbit reacts, I already have one of these. Now you have two, I quip. As much as we may want to skip the routine of buying treats, turn off the lights, and pretend we’re not home, we know that once we get into the spirit, the spirits at the door will bring smiles to our faces. We don’t dress up in costumes. It is enough to hide behind our Dutch door, make some creaking noises as we open the top half, and then peek around the corner to catch the surprised look on the faces of our visitors.

Now the preparations for Thanksgiving begin. This year, it is our turn to have our son and his family with us for the holiday. There is the house to clean, the turkey and all its trimmings to be bought, and plans to be made for keeping our two grandchildren busy and happy. We try to remember everything we once knew about childproofing, knowing that they will quickly remind us of anything we have forgotten.

Our daughter will join us from Colorado through the miracle of Face Time and our little family will be complete. We will give thanks for each other, for our friends, and thanks to be in good enough health and to share in all the benefits of living in 21st century America in spite of the challenges we face.

And yet…

We are still awash in news of fighting in Ukraine and the Middle East, demonstrations turning violent at home and our own government struggling to find consensus about the matters that concern us most.

One holiday rolls into another and soon we are decking the halls and bidding God’s rest to merry gentlemen, lighting the lights of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza, or enacting the rituals of whatever other faith or cultural tradition we may hold dear.

Perhaps we are just gathering close with family and friends against the winter cold and darkness. We celebrate holidays dedicated to hope and peace and wonder where to find either in our fractured world. This is where I find myself when an email pings onto my screen from another colleague. It is a quote by the late historian, Howard Zinn, and I share it here as the best I can do by way of season’s greetings.

“To be hopeful in bad times is based on the fact that human history is not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand Utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

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