Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve 1968

In Austria, where I was born, Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve, as it is in many European countries. Presents are opened on the evening of the 24th, friends and relatives visit each other and the festivities go on late into the night. Christmas morning is almost anti-climactic.

Even after immigrating to Canada in 1965, my family continued to observe the Austrian tradition of celebrating Christmas on the evening of the 24th. It made for some amusing cultural encounters, such as the time when one of the older neighborhood kids tried to shatter my youthful innocence by telling me that there was no Santa Claus. I, still being a Believer, refused to listen.

"Oh yeah?" challenged the boy, "Why do you think your parents make you go to bed early Christmas Eve?"

"They don't," I replied matter-of-factly. "In fact, we usually stay up late on Christmas Eve."

"You mean you're still up when the presents are placed under the tree?" asked the incredulous boy.

"Sure we are," I replied with a self-satisfied smile. My interrogator was at a loss for words.

In Austria, it's the "Christkind", or "Christ Child" that brings the presents. Santa Claus does not figure prominently, although St. Nicholas' historical significance is recognized earlier, on the 5th of December. However, my parents had reconciled the cultural discrepancy by explaining to me that, at Christmas time, St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, became the Christkind's helper. I didn't bother elaborating upon this to my elder acquaintance, because I had learned, by that time, that Canadian children didn't know about the Christkind, and I wasn't inclined to enter into the long explanations and elaborations that would be required to enlighten the poor fellow.

The other detail that I neglected to elaborate upon was that the Christkind, and his helper, Santa Claus, always appeared in our living room while my sister and I were shut out behind closed doors, with our mother. Early in the evening, just after supper, the door to the living room would be shut, and my mother would stay with us while my father waited in the living room to greet the Christkind. Unlike our uncouth Canadian neighbors, we Austrians were not so rude as to go to bed and leave the Christkind or Santa Claus or whatever benevolent visitor chose to enter our homes to simply deposit gifts and then leave, unwelcomed and unthanked. No, it was only right that father, the head of the household, should be there to welcome our guests, offer them the refreshments that we had set out, give them a full report regarding how good or bad we children had been since the previous Christmas, and then see them out again with the appropriate thanks. Just before leaving, the Christkind would ring a bell, signalling to my mother, my sister and myself that all was ready, and then would swiftly make his escape before we could enter the room to see him.

The Christkind brought everything; not just our presents, but even the Christmas tree! That's right. Believe it or not, every December 24, in the early evening, after dinner time, I would watch my father shut himself up in our plain, unadorned living room and, when that magical bell sounded, between one and two hours later, he would again open the door to reveal a fully-decorated tree with presents beneath it. In retrospect, I have to admire the man's fortitude. To set up and decorate a Christmas tree by himself, on the very eve of Christmas, with two impatient children waiting just behind the next door, it's a wonder that I don't recall hearing him curse at the Christkind and his helper.

One of the most memorable Christmas Eves of my childhood was December 24th, 1968. That was the evening that the astronauts of Apollo 8 accomplished the first manned lunar orbit, and it was the first time that a human being saw our Earth from the moon's perspective. I remember the broadcast appearing on our old black and white television as we celebrated Christmas that evening and dreaming, as only a six-year-old boy can, of what it must be like to fly to the moon in a rocket ship.

1968 was not a great year, for the most part. The war in Vietnam had reached its apex and American troops took heavy losses during the January Tet Offensive. The American public increasingly questioned the justification and ethics of that conflict. In April, Dr. Martin Luthor King was assassinated on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. In June, Senator Robert Kennedy was likewise assassinated.

None of that registered on my six-year-old radar. I knew nothing of Vietnam or Dr. Martin Luthor King or American politics. But I did know about rockets, and astronauts, and space, and I watched in wonder.

As the crew of Apollo 8 watched the distant Earth rise above the moon's horizon, the three astronauts, starting with Bill Anders, and followed by his crew-mates, Jim Lovell and, finally, Commander Frank Borman, read from the book of Genesis. The passage must have seemed appropriate to them. Borman ended the transmission with these words:

"And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with goodnight, good luck, Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you; all of you on the good Earth."

NASA later had to defend itself against a lawsuit launched by Madalayn Murray O'Hair, an atheist who took exception to the reading of biblical passages by the astronauts and who, in this blogger's opinion, completely missed the message behind the transmission. For the first time, men had literally removed themselves from all borders, cultures and beliefs and looked upon our home planet, and saw that we are one species, living together on one planet. From lunar orbit, no national boundaries were visible. No evidence of mankind itself was visible. All of our reasons for hating, fighting and killing suddenly faded from significance.

Our world today is, in many respects, similar to what it was in 1968. Once again, America is embroiled in not one, but two foreign wars. Once again, countless American soldiers have died as a result and, once again, people increasingly question the justification and the ethics behind these conflicts. The September, 2001 attack on New York's World Trade Center has seriously shaken America's self-assuredness. Fear and paranoia over terrorist threats, some real and some imagined, have caused a rift between Islamic and Christian cultures. International travel has been significantly hampered due to security concerns. Peoples' privacy and civil liberties have been eroded in the name of national security.

The world economy has been shaken by the 2008 Wall Street collapse. Joblessness and poverty are on the rise and entire nations stand at the threshold of bankruptcy. At the same time, the gap between the richest one percent and the rest of the world continues to widen.

We now face a new threat which has never before been seriously considered; the threat to the health of our world's climate and the natural systems that sustain us and give us life. We see increasing evidence that our habitat is changing for the worse, but we seem unable to mobilize ourselves to counter this trend. Some argue that we can't justify the expense involved, some insist that the responsibility falls on others, and some continue to deny that there is a problem at all.

Perhaps most dismaying, to me, was the news earlier this year that President Barack Obama has canceled any plans for Americans to revisit the moon in the foreseeable future. Obama's explanation is that the priority has been shifted to sending a manned mission to Mars, but this will not happen in the foreseeable future either, and many argue that the best way to reach Mars would have been by using the moon as a staging base.

As I celebrate Christmas 2010 with my family, on Christmas Eve, just as I always have, I turn on my television set and search for some message of hope, or words of encouragement. It would do me good, this Christmas, to hear any of my brothers and sisters, wishing all a happy holiday, regardless of culture or faith, and reminding us that we are all still one family living together on this good Earth.

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