Amidst a backdrop of stockings hung with care, many adult students this time of year find themselves comatose and crawling into bed for that famed long winter’s nap”- with studies far removed from both heart and mind. And yet, what should to a slumbering mind’s eye appear? The return of the annual gift season to be sure, but also the pitter-patter of little feet—the reindeer of study deadlines to come. Unlike ordinary hard-shopping seasonal shoppers, the frenzy of the Holidays gives way in the near future to the slower slog of an academic career as distance students.
There’s much we can learn as we muse over the passing of the Solstice season of celebration. There’s the, at times a bit threadbare, but generally well-intentioned (if not a bit over seasoned with sugar and pumpkin spice and everything a bit too cloyingly nice) sense of utopic “goodwill towards (wo)men”. How might we apply this proverbial Christmas spirit to the toil of our studies, that process whereby over a six-month life segment if we seek to create an, er, scholastic tapeworm within the ongoing scroll of our academic lives. Wait, what? Perhaps a brief history lesson is in order, that we may find our bearings as regard to the infamous reason for the season. We’ll begin with the day that will live in infamy, the attacks on Pearl Harbor December 7th, 1941.
Even if we skip the Hollywood war movie genre, we ought to be aware that, through history, many Canadians approached many winter holiday seasons with trepidation over whom among their brethren might be overseas fighting the good fight rather than back home, as the saying goes, in time for Christmas. From 1939 to 1945 my Grandpa and Great Uncle were among those whose lives were in service of the war effort. Despite the pat conclusions that the downright Biblical historico-fictional arc of the narrative provides; a sense that, at the end of every story told lies that longed-for happy ending, the reality of the war they participated in was full of tragedy. Although neither of my relatives was literally on those fabled front lines, the sort that in some years not so distant to memory yielded Band of Brothers DVD box sets under many a masculine Christmas tree, my veteran relatives and their wives and families shared the sense of trial and turmoil that led to their ilk being dubbed The Greatest Generation by demographers.
Powerful among their stories, in terms of reminding our student selves to take stock of our wiles anytime we encounter missed deadlines and notebooks lost forever when they slip into the bubby abyss of a holiday hot tub session, sunk with their ink emanating into a incomprehensible mass of bubbles and spilled beverages, was my Great Uncle’s experiences as a merchant marine. Often the safe passage of cargo (food and supplies to the UK, that country essentially cordoned off from the world by a NAZI sea blockade akin to Kennedy’s blockade of Cuba during the 1963 nuclear missile crisis) took precedence over picking up survivors of recent sea battles. Along the horizon and sometimes within plain sight, survivors of U Boat attacks, clinging to debris and life boats, had, by orders, to be bypassed. Delivery of life-saving cargo came at the expense of pausing to tarry and pick up survivors who’d been victimized by lurking wolves of the sea. Other rescue ships had been detached for that humanitarian surface and everyone had to retain a stiff upper lip if the cogs were to keep running on time. It must have been incredibly awful to have to stick with the plan and save lives in one way while possibly periling the lives of others. Just as we can’t all adopt every last refugee on earth or ever really donate enough of our hard-earned life’s earnings to local food banks, this moral quandary in a sense encapsulates the Christmas spirit. With so much saving to be done, Christmas is when we remember to hold close to those we love, not as a bulwark against the world but as a testament that, throughout the year, true peace and goodwill toward humanity begins at home. To take some time to give our full caring attention to loved ones and to appreciate the many blessings and privileges of times is itself a productive academic enterprise.
Historical Awareness as the Spirit of the Season
Placing ourselves into history allows us to embrace the Christmas spirit with gratitude in our lives. A quick snapshot back in time eighty-two years reveals that 1941, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, was a particularly terrifying time for tens of millions of families and their offspring who would be entering the Pacific War as nurses, soldiers, and logistical support. For the 87,000 troops at Pearl Harbor during the actual attacks war suddenly became all-too real and terrifically terrifying in a way that we can barely imagine in our era, where a mean meme can induce tears and a memory of a childhood mishap can trigger tears and recriminations. “We were pretty startled. Startled and scared to death,” Schab, now 103, said. “We didn’t know what to expect and we knew that if anything happened to us, that would be it.” The “would be it” was important, in that death or dismemberment were only once concern – the Japanese POW camps were so notoriously brutal, a far cry from placid water colours and cherry blossoms, that troops who survived them would in 1948 begin a tradition of “tenko” parties where they would re-enact the roll call and other abuses they faced as an early means of self-guided PTSD therapy. “Random beating and torture was meted out at will by sadistic, brutal and unpredictable captors. The average prisoner received less than a cup of filthy rice a day. The amount was so meagre that gross malnutrition led to loss of vision or unrelenting nerve pain. Dysentery, an infective disease of the large bowel, reduced men to living skeletons. Tropical ulcers were particularly gruesome. Lt ME Barrett, who worked in the ulcer huts at Chungkai prison camp in Thailand, wrote about them in his diary. ‘The majority were caused by bamboo scratches incurred when working naked in the jungle… Leg ulcers of over a foot in length and maybe six inches in breadth, with bone exposed and rotting for several inches, were no uncommon sight.’”
So, if we’re feeling tuckered after too much turkey dinner, we can at least rejoice that we’re laid out with discomforts of our choosing. Historical perspective serves us well, once again. But seriously, Christmas trials and tribulations are a reminder to be grateful for the little privileges in life – rather than focus on micro-aggressions at a family gathering, maybe just feel pleased that everyone is present?
But, The War..
Even the most harrowing lineup outside a Wal Mart or a The Source, perchance ironically to purchase the newest release of a first-person-shooter video game, can’t compare to how families of soldiers must have felt at Christmas. In hindsight they would only have been more petrified at the horrors of war that awaited them, not least of which because they faced an opponent whose culture in essence implied that, like in a first-person-shooter video game, each of us had an unlimited number of lives so long as one gave his life in service of his country. Battles like Iwo Jima and Okinawa yielded victories for the Allies but also revealed the depths of loyalty on the part of the Japanese in terms of defeat as a strategic or tactical option. “The US landing forces suffered 6,821 killed and 19,217 wounded. Although most in the 20,000-strong Japanese garrison were draftees, they refused to surrender, fighting tenaciously until only a few hundred remained alive to be taken prisoner.” Now, we’ve all heard the phrase it’s not how you win or lose but how you play the game but, generally, families with brave youth sent to fight a war want very much for them to return a) in one piece and b) victorious. For the Japanese attacking Hawai’i such, in their own sentiments, was not so much the case. “These men believed that one who entered battle for his country and its exalted emperor was blessed, whether he prevailed or perished.”
Although Canada had been firmly embroiled in war with Europe since 1939 the attack on Pearl Harbor, drew our elephantine neighbours to the south into the fray. Here in British Columbia things were exceedingly dire – may Japanese residents who had, among other things, worked in mining camps now found themselves in internment camps, along with Italians, Ukrainians, and Germans.
The gift of peace was later achieved but it was hard-earned and involved tough choices. If you’ve ever had to decide whether to fulfill the impassioned hope of an Other for a certain gift, or face the long slog of a relatively impoverished month of January, you get a small sense of the options on offer for the Allies when they realized, after Okinawa and Iwo Jima, the challenge in loss of life they faced if they had to invade the whole land mass of Japan in. It was an issue of moral ambiguity and in the end solved, to reference a character’s levity and truthfulness in the face of a difficult quandary during comedy film Farce of the Penguins, with the phrase “we didn’t to it in the regular way, okay?” With the harshness of history and the harried nature of the season, there’s always room for a giggle and even an inside joke (watch the movie, if you dare!)
Like that first sip of Bailey’s-infused coffee (or just a good cup of coffee), the intent of Christmas morning in our culture is to, as the children’s singer Raffi once crooned, make the feeling stay all through the day. To cast our negative emotions and feelings aside can be a superhuman feat especially because Christmas invokes a deep well of family discontents for many people. But, as this historical tour reminds us, the fact is that many Decembers have been fraught with such a depth and breadth of mortal fear and anguish that we can feel grateful that our issues are more metaphysical than existential. We live in one of the freest and most affluent countries humanity has ever known and our education reflects that – where else in history, from Ancient Athens to Ancient China, have students reclined and bettered their brains in such comfortable and homey circumstances as their own homes? There’s lots for every last one of us to celebrate: our academic wealth, for instance, and the fact that we don’t have a war in our immediate future (knock on wood). Lest we knock over the karmic maple syrup let’s remember that, amidst the few of our favourite things are that the dogs or war have not bitten us and the bees of terrorism have not stung us – so let’s put positive energy toward keeping it that way. After our much-deserved long winter’s nap, that is.
Associated Press. (2023). ‘Centenarian https://www.npr.org/2023/12/07/1218044792/centenarian-pearl-harbor-survivors-return-to-honor-those-who-were-killed-82-year
Farce of the Penguins – Full Transcript. (2006). Retrieved from https://subslikescript.com/movie/Farce_of_the_Penguins-488539
Grandy, L. “’A Visit From St. Nicholas.’ The New Brunswick Odells and the Authorship Controversy”. University of New Brunswick. Retrieved from https://loyalist.lib.unb.ca/atlantic-loyalist-connections/%E2%80%9C-visit-st-nicholas%E2%80%9D-new-brunswick-odells-and-authorship-controversy
Makepeace, C. (2015). VJDay: ‘Surviving the Horrors of Japan’s WW2 Camps’. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33931660
The National World War Two Museum, New Orleans. ‘Iwo Jima and Okinawa: Death at Japan’s Doorstep’. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/history-and-civilisation/2022/12/japan-had-little-chance-of-victory-so-why-did-it-attack-pearl-harbour