The cities of Edinburgh and Kyiv share a very special relationship. We are twinned cities.
Our union was the happy product of an agreement signed in 1989 at the behest of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. But the link is a natural one, and it is rooted far deeper than those heady glasnost days of 1989.
We share ancient universities that have poured forth poets and politicians. Our cities are ablaze with fine architecture, including churches and public buildings that came alive in medieval times.
I know from my own visit to Kyiv that as individuals we also share that understated cultural pride in our respective cities.
Of course, this Christmas these similarities are overshadowed by a conspicuous difference.
Last week, my boiler broke and for a chilly six days, I was without heat and hot water. My electricity still worked, I had water, albeit very cold, and I did not sit in my house with an existential concern that at any moment a cruise missile could slam into my tenement block and bring chaos and tragedy to me and my neighbours.
These are the contrasting realities for our twin.
This Christmas, in Edinburgh and the rest of the west, I think it is a good time to remember the lightness of our inconveniences. Especially, it is worth recalling that the very triviality of our boiler trials is made possible by the sacrifices to protect freedoms through the ages and to bring into existence the society we have.
Ukrainians heroically defend this type of world.
Beyond these superficial comparisons, when I contemplate the Christmas story, I find that there are two other messages that we cannot fail to see which loom large in our current situation.
You don’t have to be a Christian or celebrate Christmas to see these meanings.
We celebrate the birth of a man who was sent to us, so we are told, by God himself, to sacrifice himself to save us all. We marvel at this idea of an only son ready to risk all for the benefit of others.
Yet in the last 10 months, Ukrainian parents have sacrificed sons and daughters to protect their homeland and defend the rest of us.
Thousands upon thousands of their children, I know not how many were only sons and daughters (and I dread to estimate), have been called to serve so that the world can enjoy peace. Flesh and blood sons and daughters whose loss is a depth of grief far removed from the relatively anodyne church services to celebrate one who died millennia ago.
As we celebrate Christmas, we should reflect and contemplate on those offspring and their parents for whom the Christmas story of a sacrificial son and peace is an absolutely practical experience; a visceral, raw and imminent reality.
And it’s imperative to be magnanimous. Over 90,000 Russian sons have also been lost by their parents, a fact made sadder by its senselessness.
There is a second aspect of the Christmas story that has more of a political philosophical relevance to our current state.
No matter what your Christian proclivities, here we have a story about a human being, a single person, who gave up his life so that the rest of us could be redeemed.
He possessed, so we are told, supernatural faculties that allowed him to walk on water, turn water into wine, and cure the sick with merely a touch.
With these powers, such an individual might have accumulated dictatorial levels of influence, founded a great political movement, and enslaved his enemies. But he did not; he knew his possibilities, and, guided by a higher moral purpose, he set about using these considerable tools to change all around him for the better.
He cared not for the nationality of those he sought to guide.
The story, however much you want to believe is factually true or not, is at the very least a persuasive allegory about how, with effort, and some humility and forbearance, immensely potent human beings can wield their strength for good.
It is not the case that we are all so corrupted and fallen that power can only lead to the accumulation of evil.
One could easily argue that because Jesus was apparently superhuman, it was effortless for such a figure to use his powers to command good. However, the reverse is also true.
If a human being with access to omniscient forces could apparently control themselves and use those capacities only for virtuous purposes, what excuse do we mere mortals have for applying our frail and more limited abilities toward bad ends?
Even if you were to dismiss the Christmas story as just that, a story, it is an opportunity for us to contemplate whether we, as individuals, and as a civilization, are doing our best to bring our talents to bear upon the most felicitous ends.
The story of Jesus is a morally useful one.
It is an especially useful time for any political leader to compare themselves to a theoretical person similar to Jesus, to reflect on whether they can look upon their life as one which in which they used their impressive influence to better the lives, safety and peace of all people around them and in foreign lands.
Or did they use it for advantage, to advance themselves and pursue goals of domination? Would a benevolent superhuman be impressed?
Sacrifices and political philosophy aside, in the more prosaic here and now, Christmas is a time to take stock of the past year and to embolden ourselves for the struggles to come.
On Christmas Eve 1941, as the world braced itself for its most punishing months and years in holding back the advance of tyranny, U.S. President Franklin D Roosevelt gave a Christmas address to the world.
The whole speech does not need recounting, but some snippets capture the essential spirit of the address:
"Fellow workers for freedom. There are many men and women…who are asking themselves this Christmas: How can we light our tree.. in a world of war? The year 1941 has brought upon our nation a war of aggression by powers dominated by arrogant rulers whose selfish purpose is to destroy free institutions. They would thereby take from the freedom-loving peoples of the Earth the hard-won liberty gained over many centuries."
It was an unusual speech, because standing on his right was Winston Churchill, who was visiting the United States to shore up and seek its support in the European struggle. In his response to Roosevelt’s address, he concluded, addressing the crowds:
"Therefore, we may cast aside, for this night at least, the cares and dangers that beset us and make for the children an evening of happiness in a world of storm…Resolve! That by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance and denied their right to live in a free and decent world. And so, in God’s Mercy, a Happy Christmas to you all!"
This Christmas we are not at world war, thankfully, but the cause of freedom has not seen such precarity since the Second World War. In a moment of brief rest, we should focus on family and friends, but we should not lose the opportunity to use a festive pause to consider what vision of humanity we fight for.
Resolve! That this Christmas all free people should raise a glass to the defenders of Ukraine, contemplate how we can all do our bit to make the world a more secure and enlightened place.
Resolve! To pay respects to all the sons and daughters who found themselves caught up with the timeless menace of acquisitive tyranny and to parents who must endure this Christmas, childless.
But we should not be despondent and sad in this quest.
Resolve, as Churchill observed, that together we can bring into being a decent and free world.
Surely, we can use this rare opportunity of Christmas 2022 to gather the strength and the human passion to advance this end.
Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter