Simcha Fisher: can we celebrate Christmas as Syria burns?

A Syrian boy, who was among the people evacuated from villages of Idlib governorate, flashes the victory sign on 19 December 2016 upon arriving at a temporary housing centre in the countryside outside Aleppo. Photo: CNS

One mother doesn’t want to give her kids Christmas presents this year, because she’s so upset over what a mess the world is.

The essayist spends several paragraphs bemoaning materialism. She says she hates the way she buys her kids presents in part to shut them up, and she wants to see them playing creative, imaginative games on their own.

This is familiar mommy territory. 

But there is a weird undercurrent to the thrust of her thought, belying something darker than the typical parents’ first-world fears about too many toys. She says:

There is a part of me that wants my kids to feel, at least in some relatively painless and abstract way, that the world is f*cked.

I know that denying my kids presents won’t raise their consciousness; they’re three and six. A cheerful pile of gifts is not analogous with the sewer drain into which so many of my hopes for progress and assumptions about cultural cohesion have disappeared. But I can’t shake this certainty that some of our ways of living aren’t working. Does conspicuous consumption help our children grow into good citizens? Or does it make them less able take charge of their own happiness?

Well, no, conspicuous consumption doesn’t help our children grow into good citizens. She can sit back and rest after vanquishing that particular straw man.  But I can’t shake the certainty that she’s really asking another, harder question than the one about whether more stuff is always better. 

She says that she suspects “toys often act as anesthetics, and that the way we shop for our kids is often at odds with what we want for them, or how we hope they turn out to be.”

True enough. But rather than simply deciding not to over-consume, she questions the idea of getting her children … anything at all. Why? Because it might not be in keeping with the way she incoherently feels that life ought to be.   

She feels guilty about all the petty things (stature, self-worth) we try to win using money and gifts, but she also seems to feel angry and powerless in the face of what people used to call “fallenness.” She seems to be asking: Isn’t there something we can do to our kids, so the world will be different, starting with their generation? Isn’t there something we can do about the how awful everything is? 

And there, she is onto something. 

I read her essay in the afternoon, and that night I lay awake, holding my toddler who couldn’t sleep. She was as warm and soft as a dumpling, restless and hungry, so I nursed her — something I’ve been trying to withhold after bedtime, since she is almost two years old. The house was so quiet, with only the hum of the furnace and the tramp of the dog’s feet as he fretted through his endless task of keeping our family safe. My husband slept beside me, and I was so glad, so glad to be able to do something for somebody. The baby had been crying; I went to her, I brought her into bed, I kept her warm, I fed her.

And I thought back over the day, how we’d spent our time packing up treats and shopping for gifts; how I’d passed a pleasant evening sipping wine and sharing photos of my baking progress with a friend who was caramelised almonds, just like I was. 

And there in my Facebook feed, along with the images of grinning children under Christmas trees, grinning children meeting Santa, grinning children building snowmen, there were dead children. Syrians who had been trapped by sheer evil, children face-down in the street, naked, bled dry, caked with the pulverised dust of their city.

Isn’t there something that someone can do?

Trying to tamp down the guilt that rose like a cloud of evil dust, I mentally ran through my week, comparing it to the week that my brothers and sisters have endured in Aleppo. I shouldn’t have bought any presents, I thought. How could I even dare? How can we light our Advent candles and sing “O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel?” We are not captives. We are healthy, wealthy, safe, pampered. Our walls our intact. We are home. Our children are with us, safe and warm in bed. The Syrians, they are the ones who need rescuing, Lord. Lord, isn’t there something I can do?

Pray, of course. Pray that someone strong will rescue them, pray that God will send courage and strength and comfort to them. I can send money, yes, send money. But what else?  Is it right to have a holly, jolly Christmas with our safe dumpling children? Do we dare to behave this way when, even as we sing our carols, their children are so saturated by horrors they no longer even cry?

There is a long Catholic tradition of choosing deliberate solidarity with the suffering: I see you hungry, I will go without, too. I see you lonely, I will visit you in your lonely cell. I see you in pain, and I will offer up my pain.

I see you fallen (says the Lord) and I will send my only Son; and I will send Him again, at the end of the world, and He will set all things right, and will wipe away every tear, and will conquer sin and evil once and for all.

But what about now? What about now, when we are so helpless to help strangers on the other side of the world? Is it wrong to prepare to rejoice when they are so crushed under their suffering? If it’s not wrong, how can it possibly be right? I should have bought nothing, I thought again. I should have baked nothing, put up no lights, sung no songs. It is not right to celebrate when there is such darkness.

Thus I thought very much along the lines of the author I described above, who wants to rectify the wrongness of the world by withholding things from her children; who “wants [her] kids feel … that the world is f*cked.” She thinks that when there are too many good things in the world, it’s bad for all of us; and so the way to make the world good again is to take away things from others, and voilà, only the good will be left.

Notice she does not offer to withhold any goods or pleasures from herself.

That is not how it works. We do not correct by diminishing. We do not increase love by withholding. We do not make the world lighter by bringing down darkness in our own home. We do not rectify wrongs by reducing signs of love, especially not from children, never from children. I thought of the child in the dust, and I held my child closer, smelling her hair, relishing her warmth, revelling in how safe she was between me and her father who loves her. 

The Father loves her, and us, and them. This I know. I want to help the child I saw, and I cannot. That child was already dead. I held my living child and tried to open my heart to both children, offer love to both. 

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

So I will increase the warmth, the safety, the love, the joy that my own children find on Christmas day, and I will accept the only darkness I’m called to face right now, which is the guilt of a comfortable first-worlder. I can make small sacrifices to send more money. For these last days of Advent, I can fast in solidarity with them. And I can pray, and offer up my helplessness. What God will do with it, God only knows.

And what about my children? Do I need to make them know, right now, the way the world is? Do I take away their Christmas and make them suffer, so they know what the world is like?

The older ones are already learning, and they are already deciding how they will respond. They hear the news; they know they are their brothers’ keepers. The younger ones don’t know about Aleppo, about crushing sorrow, about pain that obliterates all else. I will keep it from them, a cold thought inside me as we make our way to midnight Mass. 

Why is one child safe and warm, while another one languishes? I don’t pretend to know. I will keep my own children warm, and I will bring my cold and baffling thoughts to the Father. He will know what to do with it. I don’t. 

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Aid organisations on the ground in Syria, or assisting organisations with a presence in Aleppo, or aiding refugees who have escaped:

US readers

Jesuit Refugee Service
CRS (Catholic Relief Services)
CNEWA (Catholic Near East Welfare Association)
Preemptive Love
Mercy Corps

Australian readers (all of the above, plus)

Aid to the Church in Need
Caritas Australia