Christmas and Crisis

With a global pandemic that keeps us at a distance from each other, this year will certainly be a different Christmas. And yet it seems like for many, Christmas is more important than ever. Why exactly are we drawn to celebrate the holidays in the middle of a crisis?

My mother on her first Christmas in 1939. There innocence of the occasion is palpable, but dark events were taking in the surrounding world. Five years later she was fleeing for her life.

My mother, five years old, spent Christmas of 1944 angry at her father. He had promised to be back to celebrate with them, that he’d take a break in his busy schedule and just focus on the family. But he wasn’t there. And they weren’t even home, instead holed up in the castle at Ják near the Austrian border with dozens of other Army officers’ families. She played in the echoing hallways and wished her dad was with her.

What she didn’t know – what the adults didn’t have the heart to tell her – was that her dad wasn’t there because he’d been taken by the invading Soviet army and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Voronezh, some 2000 km away. An army major, he’d been in Velence in southern Hungary inspecting supply lines when the camp was surprised by the encroaching Red Army, and he didn’t have time to get away. Soon, the family was fleeing the Soviet forces too, and in January they were out on the road, scrambling away on foot, full of the fear and desperation of the most vulnerable refugees. That winter would ultimately cost my mother’s own mother her life, dying from typhus in a makeshift field hospital in Passau in Bavaria.

With no comparison otherwise, this Christmas, some 76 years later, seems destined to be lined with tragedy too for many people around us. A global pandemic has swept the world, and many have lost loved ones that they planned to spend many more Christmases with. My mother, now 81, is spending the holiday isolating with my father, staying away from the virus, quite reasonably worried by what the virus could entail for her. And yet, she called me today, on Advent Sunday, to tell me about how she’s spent all morning hanging stars in her windows and whittling the ends of candles to fit into candlesticks, and how even her, the sceptic, had been swept up in holiday spirit.

It’s 28 December, 1918, at the Pneumonia and Influenza ward at the American Army Camp Hospital 28 in Nevers, France. Even in the grimness of the Spanish flu, a month after the end of the war, someone has put up little Christmas decorations along the walls. Photo: US National Archives

I think there’s something telling about humanity in the fact that, even with their husbands on the front or taken prisoners of war, and with the Red Army bearing down on them, the officers’ families that gathered in the castle nevertheless felt the need to celebrate Christmas. News stories and anecdotes from this holiday season seems to bear out the same phenomenon today – people are starting the season earlier, listening more intensely to its music, allowing themselves exceptions to start as soon as they can.

Certainly, a cynic would read into this a wilful ignorance of the facts of the situation, a clinging to a life no longer tenable, and in the case of the upper-class Hungarian families no small amount of privilege. They would point to people Black Friday shopping in huge numbers these past few days, how they’re putting themselves and others at risk for the sake of empty consumption. I can definitely see all of that, but I also see something more, something deeper, a meaning of Christmas where Christmas itself gives people comfort and support. In a time of crisis, Christmas quite simply becomes more important than ever.

One thing my mother has taught me, having lived though both times of bountiful plenty and times of dire need, is that the cancelled travel plans and family gatherings we’ve had to give up during this pandemic are measly compared to what could happen and has happened in history. A lot of what we’re dearly missing right now (I, for one, would love to give my mother a hug) is not strictly necessary, and we’re able to do without so many more material and physical comforts than we realise. This Christmas will be a very different one, with people celebrating away from each other and with less than they’re used to. And yet we’re still celebrating, still listening to all the music, still leaning on tradition for emotional support, still embodying that Chistmas spirit.

Humanity will pull through this crisis like so many before. And Christmas, not the Christmas of the family gatherings and expensive gifts but Christmas as an idea, is helping us live on.

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