The holiday lights on houses and in yards glow white, green, red and blue in the dark.
My children, both teenagers, and I walk our dog through the neighborhood. It’s a cold, crisp night.
Down the street, one of my neighbors is hosting a holiday party. The music floats through the December air. The guests sing along, some of them boisterously off-key:
We wish you a merry Christmas. We wish you a merry Christmas. We wish you a merry Christmas….
In some ways, it’s an odd holiday. It celebrates the birth of Christ, but there are so many things about Jesus’ beginning that remain mysterious.
We don’t know with precision when he was born. The best guess for the year of his birth is 5 B.C. The error in our entire calendar system can be attributed to an early monk who found arithmetic a challenge.
Christians in the fourth century celebrated Jesus’ birth on Jan. 6 before settling, apparently at random, on Dec. 25. Before then, the idea of the holiday – that the birth of a child brings hope to the world – seems not to have occurred to the faithful.
Our dog spots something that interests him. He scampers, straining at the leash, down the road. My children laugh and trot after him, something about the combination of the dog and the season stripping adolescence away and revealing the innocence beneath it.
Whatever the reason for choosing Dec. 25 as the date for Christmas, it fits. On this part of the earth, it comes at a time when we often need hope and faith the most. The days are short, the nights are long and the world at times feels cold and dark.
Just a few days ago in Pakistan, a group of fanatics in suicide vests entered a school and killed more than 100 people, most of them children. The killers serve as proof that people at their worst can read any religious text, ignore the parts counseling charity and mercy and find justifications for their own most wicked impulses.
At the same time, here in this country, many who are loud in proclaiming themselves Christians also defend torture – perhaps forgetting that the most famous torture victim in history was … Jesus. Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
Not all the darkness comes from war and large-scale strife. Some of it hits closer to home. Two years ago just before Christmas in Connecticut, a disturbed young man shot his mother, and then murdered 26 children and educators before killing himself.
Not long after, on a trip east to visit family, I went to Sandy Hook Elementary to pay homage to the fallen. My son surprised me by asking to go along.
We stood near the school, our heads bowed. On the way back, he asked questions that grappled with suffering and evil. “How could something like that happen?” he wanted to know.
I told him that was a mystery as old as humanity. One theme that many of the religious texts of the major faith traditions together share, I explained, is a yearning for peace and fellowship. The reason, I said, the parts of the Bible focusing on kindness and love speak to me is that those virtues offer the only real comfort we have in an often cruel life.
Faith, I told my son, is supposed to guide us away from darkness and into the light.
That boy, now growing into a young man, drapes his arm over my shoulders as we walk through our neighborhood on this silent night.
My daughter, who has grown taller than my wife, grins and says: “He’s almost as tall as you, Dad.”
We all laugh. Our dog scampers back to check out the fun.
Down the street, the folks at my neighbor’s house sing another carol:
Peace on earth, good will to men….
I look at my daughter’s smiling face and silently add: And women, too.
As holiday wishes go, peace and good will may be among the oldest, but they’re still the best ones.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.