Like many of you, I sat down with my family to a bountiful julbord on Christmas. The family continues to grow as the middle-aged kids have their own kids. The younger couples continue many of the traditions — the culinary ones and the musical ones with songs and dancing through the house.

The older members and visitors alike enjoy watching this passage of the julbord legacy with its many rituals. But what I most enjoy is how this large family has welcomed new members into the fold and how they in turn have adopted our traditions, mingled in their own and passed on the enhanced family memories to a new generation. Tradition! It is both yeast and glue, that leavens and binds all. How grateful I am for these gifts, the givers and the giving.

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Living Christmas lessons
How will these traditional lessons fare under today’s conditions in this new year? The dramatic irony of the situation, heightened by this election year, is surely not lost on any of us. The escalation of the situation between Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies against Persian Iran’s Shi'ites creates an even more volatile situation in the Middle East.

This is the very place where the original event that Christmas celebrates occurred. During these holy days we have heard strident Republican candidates escalate each other’s dangerous rhetoric. Appealing to their evangelical flocks, they ignore the message and implications of Christmas, substituting for the angelic choruses’ good tidings their own fearful cries, fomenting their partisans to forbid any refugees from the Holy Lands, lest their numbers be infiltrated by terrorists.

Perhaps like France (with the largest number of Muslim immigrants of any European nation), and distinguishing between their neighbors and the terrorists, we should not be cowed but instead live our American values as before and welcome the strangers to our shores, even as we remain vigilant for terrorists, both domestic and foreign. Alternatively we can turn Lady Liberty’s back to the immigrants, douse her lamp in the ocean and remove that ridiculous sign about welcoming the poor yearning to be free; or perhaps we can revise the welcome, only to be applicable in odd numbered decades. Indeed we do live in perilous times, testing our faith and fortitude.

History kibitzes our contemporary affairs citing alternative examples. If I recall the story correctly, long ago in this same region another pair of refugees was escaping from a murderous edict and its effects that threatened not only their imminently newborn child but also all other newborn males in the community. Herod’s fearsome savagery was exacted upon all the native religious community as communal guilt in response to rumors throughout the land, which might threaten his own primacy.

Today once again we hear cries to persecute the victims. Yet even in that day there were well-meaning innkeepers, who could make a bit of room for a desperate family. Our national strength has always rested upon our diversity and tolerance, goodwill and common purpose. The Muslim community of Americans is our best resource to discover threats and to appreciate the goodwill of neighbors, their traditions and beliefs.

It is in this case that Germany (welcoming the largest wave of immigrants) and even more so Sweden (welcoming the greatest number of refugees, per capita) are demonstrating in our new year the true spirit of refuge and sanctuary — whether the fleeing of a family or the succor of a Samaritan stranger. No one is more aware of the difficulty of permanently housing and integrating these new populations than both countries. There will be many difficulties in the days ahead.

Most of these refugees only desire peace and religious liberty, no more than we ask for ourselves, or than we would wish for ourselves were we in their situation, fleeing the wrath of madmen. Many of these refugees are smart, industrious middle-class families and businessmen (though that should not be a determining factor in their acceptance), whose energy and success can contribute to our country’s strength and rekindle our beacon of hope for the hopeless. And in any case, the United States of America, in contrast to the disunited European countries, has the most stringent conditions for accepting refugees, were we ever to do so. It is shameful that every single day Germany and Sweden each accepted more refugees than we have taken in since the crisis began.

It will be interesting to watch the crisis around the EU’s Schengen Agreement for the free flow of EU people within their common boundary. Given the dramatic numbers of refugees, it is understandable that both Germany and Sweden had to stop further flight and enforce border control when other European countries refused to share the burden.

Future refugees
Finally, this instance is but a preview of the future. Most of the world’s metropolises and their populations lie within 100 miles of an ocean, sea or bay. For the San Francisco Bay Area — indeed for much of the USA’s three coasts — the impact of climate change is not some idle threat. If it continues, not merely to overwhelm oceanic islands but to drown continental coastlines, today’s refugee crisis will be dwarfed. And thanks to the population explosion — as we approach a world census of nine billion people — humans can generate many other causes of intolerance that will exacerbate conditions and cause millions of refugees to knock on all our doors. Of course, as immigrants ourselves, or descendants of immigrants (most of whom left for economic advancement and not fleeing for their families’ lives), we can appreciate how life in a new land can enhance one’s prospects as well as contribute to the success of one’s new nation.

So, with a renewed heart and in cherishing the traditions of the holidays, this year let us act on these lessons of Yuletide and find ways to implement them during the new year. One by one, united, people of good will can change the world.

Ted Olsson