Peace On Earth
It’s Christmas. But Does It Feel Like Christmas? Or is Christmas far away this year?
I’m deep in the midst of Insta-envy. At some point every day, I find myself looking at photos of friends and acquaintances enjoying Japan, and I feel a pang of nostalgia for my old hometown. Right now, that’s mixed with a longing for Christmas. Christmas in Tokyo.
I miss my old house and my old neighbourhood. The way local shops and cafes would decorate their interiors for Christmas. Or the light-filled trees lining avenues around town. Not to mention the lights in my own house, in the tree out front, the one in the courtyard, and the long rows of lights down the staircase.
Here in London it doesn’t feel like Christmas. Christmas is around, but not like the song; it isn’t all around.
You stumble into Christmas every now and then. Some streets have lights. Some stores have decorations. The local supermarkets sell plenty of Christmas stuff. But turn your eyes from the mince pies and ready-to-roast meats, and it’s just another day in Consumerlandia.
Christmas in London is different from Christmas in Tokyo. In Japan people do Christmas, but they don’t celebrate it. Christmas is like Halloween. It’s a costume people wear for fun. And just like Halloween, Tokyo does it amazing well. Brilliantly, uniquely, photogenically well.
In London there’s less doing Christmas, but people celebrate Christmas. At least, I think they do. I’m not sure. There’s plenty of evidence that the meals, the family time, and the tradition of Christmas still linger.
Speaking of tradition, this Christmas has me wondering about the things we say, the words we mouth, at Christmastime. Like ‘peace on earth’. Or ‘goodwill to all’.
Nothing undermines the Christmas mood quite like wading through a divisive national election in the country you’ve just moved to. Or seeing the country where your child has just started university decide to impeach their president. Or watching the country you grew up in burn up in nationwide fires, a relentless ecological disaster, which the prime minister seems to escape on an overseas holiday.
What does peace on earth mean?
Last week I was at Heathrow Terminal 5 to meet my kid, here to visit for Christmas. As I arrived, I noticed a guitar case like mine and I noticed the grey-haired guy carrying it. It was Tommy Emmanuel, one of my childhood guitar idols. And one of the last people I got to see live at the Tokyo Blue Note, another place I Insta-envy from time to time. I said hello, we shook hands, and I mouthed familiar words. Merry Christmas. Safe travels.
Those words are a polite mask. Because there’s a limit to how much we can say I love you and your music means everything to me to someone who is pretty much a stranger, however many times we might’ve met or spoken in the past.
‘Thank you for the music. I saw you at Tokyo Blue Note a few months back. Merry Christmas. Safe travels.’
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this. Familiar words, spoken with sincerity, can carry deep meaning. Or else we would’ve stopped saying ‘thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry’ long ago.
What we mean when we say Merry Christmas or Season’s Greetings is a vast question. And it’s not one I’d like to tackle now. Partly because I’m not sure we can agree what less controversial phrases, like peace open earth, or goodwill to all, mean.
Those words still appear in songs and on cards. Maybe they always felt like lofty expressions of hope. But they feel more distant now.
Because peace is always something we make. It’s a process. And goodwill is something we extend in the hope of reciprocation. It’s an opening gesture, like offering a handshake, or a respectful bow, even before the other person does.
Both express our openness to the universe and to other people, to them treating us well.
When you meet someone in Japan, the standard thing to say is ‘Yoroshiku onegaishimasu’, which is usually translated as ‘Nice to meet you’, but more literally means something like ‘I hope this goes well’, or ‘Please be nice to me.’ Out of this humility, social bonds are built.
So if phrases like ‘peace on earth’ or ‘goodwill to all’ are to mean anything, they have to begin with us, with our openness to the world and to other people in the world. We have to be peacemakers. We have to live with goodwill.
So, my radical idea this Christmas, and going into the new year, is this. Instead of saying peace on earth, how about just not hating people you’ve never met? And instead of goodwill to all, how about not yelling at people you’ve never spoken to, either in your soul as you read the day’s news, or online as you navigate your day’s communications?
Don’t get me wrong. There are things we need to be angry about. Vast, complex problems, that don’t have easy solutions. And people in power who seem more willing to profit from the problem than talk honestly about possible solutions.
I’m fed up with watching the world get worse, in my lifetime. So many things, from the willingness to improve our environment to the status of indigenous peoples, the scourge of racism, and the safety and independence of women, have become worse, not better, in the past 20 years.
But I fear we have substituted hating people for solving problems. We yell, shame, and ridicule, which simply serves to harden the hearts of those who support the status quo – which, of course, is increasingly like supporting the decline of everything that contributes to peace and goodwill.
Social media has duped us into believing that we change the word by yelling at a famous person’s online avatar. So we expend all the energy we could use in making the world more peaceful and full of goodwill in the most ephemeral of places.
But change – the kind that builds peace and creates goodwill – happens in personal connections. These might be online. But more often they’re not. Or they started online then took on the form of flesh and blood as we meet with others. And as long as we remember that, we’ve still got a chance.