If Christmas were a book, I would title the preface "Peace on Earth?" The key to that phrase is the question mark.
Peace on Earth is the stuff of Christmas songs - mostly sacred ones. Peace on Earth inspires individuals, committees and organizations to feed the needy. (Too bad there isn't "Peace on Earth" the other 11 months, when the needy are still-needy.) Peace on Earth is that cozy childhood feeling that comes with finding a window far from the noisy Christmas crowd and looking out at the swirling gray snow pellets, knowing the cold and ice can't get you and that Santa and Rudolph will get through it just fine.
We all know, though, there never has been peace on earth. Or peace in our country, peace in our community, peace at home. I love the idea, but I'm still looking for the reality. Well into middle age, I wonder when I last believed in that illusory Peace. Where and when did peace last prevail?
On earth? Never.
In America? I grew up in the tumult of the sixties and Vietnam. As an elementary student, I felt enclosed in this shadow of a war that seemed to last forever-indeed, did last into my teen years. My male friends, too young for the draft, loved their GI Joe dolls, manipulating these 1960's action figures to "fight" in that timeless way boys are always being nudged toward war.
My strongest enduring image is the Life magazine article that came out when the home front Christmas rush was cranking up. My father had hauled a fresh tree out of the woods, my mother was wrapping presents, and cooking steam stuck to the windows like swaddling on a baby. Amid the stir, I drank lots of cocoa, built forts out of snow, and counted the days until the big family gathering at my grandparents' house. But on the day the tree went up, the horror of the war came home to me.
I don't remember if I was 8, 9 or 10, but I vividly remember the magazine article, with its rows and rows of soldiers who had died, young men with real faces and real names. Young as I was, I understood these young men would never again enjoy the coziness of decorating a tree or wrapping presents or sipping cocoa with their families. I doubted there could possibly be a reason good enough to take the lives of these soldiers, to remove them forever from any possibility of coziness. The Vietnam War was lived horror for so many, vicarious horror for a young child.
Christmas passed, but not the vigil many families endured. There were neighbors who kept their Christmas lights blazing until their sons came home. There was one family that kept a countdown sign in their window, ticking down numbers until finally, their child came home, and their lives could go on.
In retrospect, most wars seem stupid. The Civil War, what a waste, we tell ourselves. Especially so for the players in it, the sufferers of half-bodied lives and traumatic "soldier's heart." If only the troublemakers of the world would behave, we wouldn't have to go to war. Yet how many of us know somebody from any war that still has survivors, right back to World War II, who is able to acknowledge the horror of it and then append the crucial bit of advice: "So please, work for peace."
There is an afterword to my book of Christmas, and it covers the human tendency to look ahead with innocent good will. The afterword is short because it hasn't been finished yet. But it has a working title: "There is no Peace on Earth; I'll Settle for Hope."
Most important, though, is the Appendix: "Always listen to the soldiers."
Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident.