A peace-filled day, and a silent night

"The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth."

-Romanian cosmonaut Dumitru Prunariu in "The Home Planet"

As you read this, something unusual is happening outside your window. It may not have penetrated your consciousness yet, but it soon will. Sometime today, while you're putting on the kettle, or doing the wash, or rewiring a lamp, the hectic rush of Christmas will begin, unnoticed, to fade.

The massed rumble of traffic will grow more remote, then melt slowly away as the streets empty. In malls and supermarkets, the tide of shoppers will dwindle and recede, until last-minute bargain hunters find themselves almost alone, like the straggling remnant of a great army that has marched over a hill and out of sight.

This strange once-a-year hush falls like snow over streets and housetops, muffling the everyday clamor, slowing the pulse of town and city, giving us a pleasant sense of detachment from the hurly-burly - as if we were actually sequestered in our cottages by a heavy snowfall. It's a part, and no small part, of the magic of this season.

Of course, its immediate cause - the reason it's so quiet out there - is purely economic: By Christmas Eve most people have finished whatever holiday shopping they planned to do and have sensibly gone home to stay put awhile.

Others, a goodly number, have simply left town.

But it's more than that. What we experience as the day winds toward evening is an interior, psychological hush, as well. This tranquility invades the mind as well as the street before your house. And it is vast, age-old and fraught with meaning, if we choose to think about it.

Small and local though it may seem, the holiday calm shares its nature with the stillness of great seas, with the drifted silence of mountain chains and the unhurried, inarticulate life of ancient trees.

Because it arrives on Christmas Eve, the hush fuses somehow with the dominant themes of the holiday: peace, brotherhood, the unity of all peoples, of all life. It becomes an appropriate context for the message of the carols: "O hush the noise, ye men of strife, And hear the angels sing."

Astronauts of many nations have sensed this union of stillness and human solidarity as they gazed at the tiny, colorful Earth from thousands of miles away in space. American Russell Schweickart put it this way: "You're out there going 17,000 miles an hour, ripping through space, a vacuum. And there's not a sound. There's a silence the depth of which you've never experienced before. And you look down and see the surface of that globe that you've lived on all this time, and you know all those people down there, and they are like you; they are you."

Language itself encourages this equation between stillness and brotherhood. In the thesaurus, silence is a synonym - like friendliness and harmony - for peace.

Silence is also the condition in which we're most likely to know our own hearts and experience the divine. Be still and know that I am God. Be silent all the Earth before him.

May yours be a peace-filled day, and a silent night.

This article first appeared in the Observer on Dec. 24, 1992. Vaughan retired in 1999.