Strong, Rugged, Somewhat Sweet

On any list of the smaller enormities of modern life, other people’s Christmas circular letters ought to loom large. It is not the information itself that is so rebarbative. In the great scheme of things, knowing about the family’s new job/house/car/place at the lake is no more or less annoying than reading that Junior has scooped the Miss Joyful Prize for Raffia Work.

What offends is not the list of facts; it is the impersonal braggadocio which implicitly animates their recital. Other documents in life that puff one’s importance at least do so to secure some good purpose: To get a pay raise or obtain a job. But the Christmas circular is bombast in its pure form, intended to impress merely for the purpose of impressing—vanitas vanitatum.

How much more welcome than such cyclo-styled self-advertisement are a few words of personal greeting scrawled on a conventional card. One might even be happier to receive one of the un-Christmas cards sent out annually by an irascible colleague who experiences difficulty forgiving his enemies, even though he knows he really ought to. His concession to the Season of Goodwill consists of posting to the offenders plain black cards signed and inscribed in simple silver script: “I await your apology.”

At least his cards are plain. The nadir of the Christmas circular phenomenon is reached when the puff sheet is accompanied by a card showing not the Holy Family heaped onto a single donkey fleeing into Egypt, but the Nuclear Family disporting itself somewhere warm. Such an exhibition can only be intended to promote envy and uncharitableness when sent to people spending December in Minnesota.

The only one of these family snaps I have ever kept beyond Twelfth Night came from a sprightly minded graduate student the Christmas before the invasion of Iraq. The photograph showed her husband in combat fatigues standing next to his tank. Her bikini-clad form was draped deliciously across the front of the vehicle. The caption read simply “Peace on Earth.”

It is good to know the U.S. Marines do irony.

It is actually the Christians of Iraq I shall be thinking of this Christmas. These are not the converts of intrusive Victorian missionaries; they are communities as old as Christianity itself, long predating the emergence in the Western Middle Ages of Christmas as an important holiday. (In the early Church the great festivals were Easter and to a lesser extent Epiphany.) Their liturgical language is Syriac, a literary form of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.

During the first three centuries of Islam, Syriac Christians were a vital link in the transmission of Greek science to the scholars of the Arab world. In the three centuries before Islam, their monasteries were places of poetry and of a spiritual endeavor characterized by considerable psychological acuity. Standing outside a monastery gate on the escarpment of Mount Izla, looking south over the little Turkish border town of Nusaybin, once a great center of Syriac learning, one can sense centuries of intellectual effort wafting up on the thermals from the Mesopotamian plain.

Today the subtle symbiosis that has for centuries sustained these Christian communities is being brushed violently aside. Syriac Christians are leaving their ancestral land to live precariously as refugees in Syria and Jordan. And it’s not just Christians; the Yezidis, a small community whose principal shrine is in the mountains of northern Iraq, also live in justifiable fear. This tragedy seems to be little reported, though the Archbishop of Canterbury’s distress at what he saw when visiting refugees in Syria got some coverage on the internet.

The sober consideration of this cultural catastrophe may be lubricated by a wine that, like the landscape of northern Mesopotamia, is strong and rugged and somewhat sweet. The people of Mount Izla were making their own wines in the time of Ezekiel, but I fear that today the grapes there get turned into raki (the Turkish equivalent of ouzo) or pekmez (a sort of jam). One may substitute a Parducci Pinot Noir grown in the precipitous hills of Mendocino County in northern California, which may be had in Minnesota for about twelve dollars. The color is a good deep red; an aroma rises with the alcohol as the hand warms the glass; the taste is robust and lingering.

This wine would be good company for bread and cheese and hard thinking. Its mellowing influence might well evaporate the vanity of one’s friends. One might even start to wonder what can be done to stop the modern world from destroying all the good we inherited from the past.