[OUTLOOK]Christmas light and Christmas joy

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[OUTLOOK]Christmas light and Christmas joy

Christmas in America is so overpowering in its promises of family, festivity and profit that I once proposed that December 25 be stricken from the calendar.

"Another dumb idea, Dad," my children chorused.

I was serious. I'm all for family, festivity and profit, and I know we need a big seasonal holiday to get us through the long winter. But a few of us still like to go to church on Christmas Eve and ponder the mystery of light overcoming darkness. What happens in an American Christmas is that a determined jollity muscles out reflection. There is simply no time between attending the party before the service and assembling the child's new bike (from instructions written in Klingon) afterward.

That's why some of my favorite Christmases have been spent in foreign lands, where I am not so attuned to the pace of the teeming humanity around.

Of course, being unattuned causes its own problems. In Germany one year, our 7-year-old was to be a shepherd in the sunday school Christmas pageant. We were to supply his costume.

It happens that I am an expert on Christmas shepherds. In my boyhood I played a shepherd for years in holiday pageants (I was never promoted to wise man). And I know how shepherds dress - like today's desert Arabs, in robes and headdresses. So we put sandals and a colorful bathrobe on David. Usually, Christmas shepherds have to wear a dishtowel as a head covering, but we had been to Israel that year and we had a genuine Bedouin keffiyeh. David's costume was perfect ?I never looked better in my own shepherd-playing days.

Our German neighbors were appalled. To them David looked like a Palestinian terrorist. It seems that in German Christmas pageants, the shepherds dress like medieval European peasants, in belted tunics and leggings, with shapeless felt hats. We had just time to rush home and scrounge up some long stockings, an old raincoat liner and a beret, and produced a reattired David at the church just in time to go on stage - a shepherd among shepherds.

Our quietest Christmases, and some of the most meaningful, were in Moscow when Soviet atheism ruled. Most of the secular Christmas traditions, including gift-giving, a decorated evergreen tree and a visit from a kindly old gent named Grandfather Frost (assisted by the lovely Snow Maiden), had been assimilated to New Year's Day. December 25 in Moscow was just a Tuesday, a working day.

In my office the Tass news wire chattered away, announcing that the collective farmers of Moldavia had fulfilled their five-year plans and that the leaders of the Soviet Union and the Comoro Islands had held a summit and agreed that imperialism was the chief cause of global tension. On the streets, traffic roared. In shops, women stood in line for scant supplies of onions or toilet paper.

And in our apartment we celebrated Christmas. Our future shepherd was a toddler then, and his future sister just a fond hope.

One year we hired a home visit from Grandfather Frost and the Snow Maiden. He arrived, alarmingly jolly, not long after breakfast and proposed that we pour him a cup of holiday cheer. Evidently he had already made several house calls and was looking forward to as many more as the Snow Maiden would tolerate.

What made the Moscow Christmases especially precious was their privacy. Outside the world went on in its way. Inside we rejoiced together, remembered Christmases past and thought of loved ones far away. We knew what day it was, and we had time for the season and for the mystery of light overcoming darkness.

This will be our first Christmas in Korea. For the first time, our daughter in America will not be with us at Christmas. But the former shepherd, grown to manhood, will be here.

Finding a Christmas tree proved something of a challenge. Those Koreans who keep Christmas, it seems, mostly prefer the convenience of artificial trees. But we put a friend on the case, and he steered us to a greenhouse in Seocho that had living trees in big pots - and delivered one all the way to Pyeongchang-dong.

The apartment is decorated. The family is gathering. The telephone will bring us our daughter's voice. We are ready for the season.

In this year especially, light overcoming darkness is a mystery to be pondered. A glance at the year's top news stories seems to show that it is the other way around.

But it is not always so in our own lives. Most of us, most of the time, are happy and healthy men and women, eager to engage life - and when we are not, we feel that something is wrong. Babies are joyful and curious by nature, and all of us were once babies.

At the heart of the Christmas Eve mystery is the birth of a baby, the dawn of new hope. It is a gift, ours by grace, free if we will have it, never to be withdrawn except as we reject it. No wonder we sing, "Joy to the world!"


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The writer is the editor of the Joongang Ilbo English Edition.

by Hal Piper

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