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December 24, 2013 8:49 am

A symbol of what Christmas really means

Written by Don Amend

A long time ago, around 1970, I clipped a cartoon from a newspaper.

It was a simple drawing of a common Christmas symbol, but it caught my eye, and I saved it because to me, it was a perfect symbol for what Christmas is all about.

When it comes to Christmas symbols, of course, there is a whole bunch to choose from. Like it or not, the holiday has two faces, the sacred and the secular, so we sing about Frosty and Rudolph as well as Bethlehem and angels. Many symbols serve both facets of the holiday.

Santa, for example, is essentially a secular image, but he has his roots in the Christian Saint Nicholas. The tree in your living room may represent eternal life for a Christian, but its origin lies in pre-Christian northern Europe.

The most important Christmas image for Christians is the crèche, the scene at the stable where Jesus was born. Along with the infant and his family, such scenes usually include visiting shepherds, usually accompanied by a sheep or two, wise men with fancier presents and probably a few of the usual residents of the stable — maybe an ox and a donkey.

Most often, one or more angels watch over the proceedings. In short, it can be kind of crowded in that stable.

The cartoon, though, presents a much simpler depiction of that night. In it, the scene is stripped to its most basic element, no family, no visitors, no beasts, not even any angels, only the manger.

All you see of the baby is a small hand reaching out of the manger, with two fingers extended in the shape of the letter V.

The cartoon appeared during a time of deep generational division in America driven in large part by the Vietnam War, and that simple V sign, in a way, exemplified that division. Anti-war protesters, especially young people, adopted it as a symbol for peace and used it, ironically, during angry demonstrations against what they saw as an evil war.

Older people, recalling lessons from another war, remembered British Prime Minister Winston Churchill raising that same V as a call for victory, and many saw the protesters’ use of the V as a call for surrender to evil. It was divisive enough that kids sometimes flashed the sign simply because they knew it irritated their teachers or parents.

It might seem strange that the cartoonist chose to have the Christ child raising that divisive V from his bed, but it does make sense, for in that manger lies the way to both victory and peace. For Christians, he came to provide victory over evil, especially the evil that lies within all of us, dividing us and bringing the bitterness and guilt that prevent us from living full, happy lives.

Overcoming that evil is necessary to find true peace.

Today, as in the 1970s, we still live in a contentious time. In today’s atmosphere, the Nativity scene often becomes a divisive symbol, used as a weapon by some in an effort to make political points and drawing angry opposition from others as a result.

Such conflict makes a mockery of the angels’ song of peace and goodwill, generating anger that mars what should be a joyful celebration and a wish for peace for all.

Realistically, such conflict is probably an unavoidable part of human nature. Still, Christmas is a time of hope, hope that, individually, we can win peace for ourselves and spread it to those around us.

Those small fingers emerging from the manger are a promise of that possibility.

Have a peaceful and joyful time for Christmas and for the whole holiday season.

Shalom.

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