What Do You Think of Christmas? A Bar Conversation. Lviv Stories

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«If we have so beautiful a day like Christmas, why we so angry, why do we have a lot of problems in the world?» An American writer and a Ukrainian wine-purveyor try to make sense of the day: the philosophy of pieces/peaces.

By Joe Lindsley

The Band’s «Must Be Christmas»

I love Lviv perhaps mainly because it is a city of conversation, a place where people take time to speak with each other, even, especially if they have other places to be. Last week, as I stopped into a natural-wine-and-specialty food shop, the owner, my friend Nicholas S., handed me a glass to try, while Christmas music played in the background on Ukraine’s Radio Jazz. As I took a seat at the shop’s single big oak table, I was met with an unexpected question: 

«What do you think of Christmas?» Nicholas asked, while washing some glasses. 

«What?»

«What do you think of Christmas? Is it something private for you, or can you explain what it means for you?»

People perhaps ask such questions in books or movies or some old sappy hopeful Christmas song but seldom if ever have I discussed my personal views on this holiday – even though it sort of takes up at least a month of our lives every year. But Nicholas is wont to ask such questions because in addition to being a wine purveyor he is a natural philosopher, always seeking to understand and describe life. A favorite phrase of his is «be pieces,» often said as a farewell, which could also be spelled «be peaces,» because it means both to be peaceful and to take things one piece at a time. 

Read more: «I Want to Give People What Is In My Soul. The Story of Lviv Wine Shop.»

I didn’t have an answer about American-style Christmas, so I asked what it means for Nicholas. 

«I don’t know,» he said. «For me I don’t understand everything in our culture about this day, because I don’t see the spirit of Christmas in general in the world. It doesn’t work. Because if we have so beautiful a day like Christmas, why we so angry, why we have a lot of problems in the world. Ok, on this one day, we can be ‘pieces,’ but all 365 days we won’t be ‘pieces.’»

«When I look at history programs,» he continued, «always when we can see history of wars, it’s always Muslim fights with Christian, God from this side and God from that side. We have one God but different points of view. It’s why i don’t understand why we can’t all be at peaces.»

«Do you remember,» I said, «a few years ago it was the 100th anniversary of the start of the first world war. People talked about the 1914 Christmas truce, not organized top down but rather among the soldiers–»

British grocery store Sainsbury’s 2014 advertisement about the 2014 Christmas truce.

«But it was just one day,» Nicholas said. 

«Yeah, just like Christmas, one day,» I said. «The people can have one day to themselves kind of, but then it’s back to doing what they are told.»

«Yeah your chief says let’s go to war with these people,» Nicholas said. «We say, ‘No we don’t want war. Why?’ This is why for me this day of Christmas is a day not of ‘peaces,’ it’s a day like dream days, it’s like a dream that can never be true. We want to see God, we believe in God but we never see him. It’s like peace. We believe in peace but we never do peace. We just believe in peace. We need to fight to have peace. No! We don’t need to fight. I don’t understand it. It’s why I don’t believe in this day, because if our God...»

A customer entered, so Nicholas went over to speak with him. 

Read more: Why Do People Start Wars? Lviv Stories.

I sat thinking, trying some wine for 30 minutes while other customers came in. I recalled the prior Christmas Eve, on the Ukrainian calendar, 6 January, when Nicholas and his wife had invited me to his aunt’s home, for the pre-holiday meal, without meat or alcohol and with lots of caroling and delicious borsch with mushroom dumplings. From the next day onward, for almost a week, I was at the homes of various friends around Lviv and the Carpathian mountains, feating, singing, living. 

There was something freer about the January Christmas – celebrated at a time when the commercial western world had moved on to promoting gym memberships and tax season, etc. We could actually celebrate, and for the first time, I had time to consider what Christmas meant to me.

Read more: During Ukraine’s January Christmas, an American Discovers the Soul of Music.

A customer sat across from me and after a long day was drinking a Japanese beer. A regular there, he opened the beer himself. The other customers had left and Nicholas joined us again.

«I was thinking about your question,» I said. «Christmas in the west is a month of anticipation and commercialization and build-up and then you have only one day to think, appreciate, relax, and breathe. I think that’s by design. It’s like the bread and circuses of Nero. it’s only one day – so it’s going to be a little disappointing. 

«Whereas in Ukraine, Christmas is many days of hearing and singing the same songs–on Christmas Day alone I went to maybe four or five houses, and ate the same food at each place, and sang the same songs. At first I was skeptical: Why are these people so happy? But then I realized it was like a forage of joy–»

«Yeah,» said the guy drinking the Japanese beer, «maybe you think some horrible thoughts and then it’s like no! only joy!

Read more: «Four Reasons Why January Christmas is Better.»

Nicholas remained skeptical. «All those days for us are times to promise something. Always you promise, God, if I have some things, or some health, I promise. I give my profit to God: new year, birthday, holidays, easter, we always promise. We say to God, God give me please investment, give me credit for future. I will be peaces with everyone.

«We go to church like we go to bank. When we grow, every year we have this check point. God says, please, I give you, it’s nothing to me. It’s like American economic, until it’s time to pay.»

«But what if we didn’t have that one day, how much worse would we be?» I asked. 

«What will I do if we don’t have christmas? Nothing. Void. All your things come from void. God is void.» 

«If we didn’t have Christmas, we wouldn’t be having this conversation and it’s not perfect and we usually screw it up. But without this, we wouldn’t have a way to measure ourselves. «

«But – nothing changes.»

«Not always.»

«No, always.»

… and then «Fairytale of New York» a rough beautifully sad Pogues song about broken dreams and still, still some lingering hope, came on the radio. It begins, «It was Christmas eve babe / In the drunk tank–»

By Joe Lindsley (follow on Instagram or LinkedIn)

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Lviv Now is an English-language website for Lviv, Ukraine’s «tech-friendly cultural hub.» It is produced by Tvoe Misto («Your City») media-hub, which also hosts regular problem-solving public forums to benefit the city and its people.

 



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