by Bob Brooke

Dove and olive branch.

n Christianity, Judaism, and Islam an olive branch is the sign of peace. The Bible, the Torah, and the Qur'an describe a story in which Noah released a dove after the Great Flood in order to find land. The dove came back carrying an olive branch in its beak, proof for Noah that the Great Flood had receded. In this case, "peace" must have had a deeper meaning, such as gratitude, forgiveness, hope, and love, that such a sight would have triggered–not simply the absence of war. The actual symbol of peace is the olive branch, not the dove which brought it back to Noah. Maybe this is the origin of offering an olive branch to signify peaceful intentions.

The city of Turku, Finland, claims to be the only place in Scandinavia that has observed the old Scandinavian tradition of declaring "The Peace of Christmas" from the Middle Ages to the present, except in 1939 during the Winter War of World War II.

Each year around noon on December 24 a crowd gathers in Old Square, the former center of city government. After the clock of the nearby Turku Cathedral strikes 12, they sing the hymn "Jumala ompi linnamme," ("A Safe Stronghold Is Our God"), an old hymn by Protestant reformer Martin Luther. Then, from a balcony overlooking the square, the City Clerk reads the words of an old document in Finnish and Swedish from a parchment scroll, thus signaling the start of the Peace of Christmas:

"Tomorrow, God willing, is the most gracious feast of the birth of our Lord and Saviour, and therefore a general Christmas peace is hereby declared, and all persons are directed to observe this holiday with due reverence and otherwise quietly and peacefully to conduct themselves, for whosoever breaks this peace and disturbs the Christmas holiday by any unlawful or improper conduct shall be liable, under aggravating circumstances, to whatever penalty is prescribed by law and decree for each particular offence or misdemeanour."

The declaration ends wishing the assembled crowd a Merry Christmas. Afterwards, trumpets play and the crowd joins in to sing the Finnish national anthem " Maamme and Porilaisten Marssi," Both Finnish and Swedish radio and television stations broadcast the event.

Declaring itself Finland's "Christmas City," Turku holds a special service in its Cathedral at which bishops from four denominations–the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland, the Orthodox Church of Karelia and Finland, the Roman Catholic Church of Finland, and the Methodist Church of North Europe–make an ecumenical appeal for world peace. The bishops' appeal is then broadcast along with the declaration of the Peace of Christmas.

In the past, people took the Peace of Christmas quite seriously. In old Norway the Peace of Christmas began on December 21, St. Thomas's Day. So strong was the desire for harmony that appointed guards roved the towns to insure that peace reigned throughout season. The penalties for violent crimes doubled during this period, adding extra incentive to comply with the seasonal declaration peace.

The Peace of Christmas isn’t merely the absence of strife, but the active experience of a harmony with God that promotes total well-being regardless of circumstance. And so it should be everywhere during this holiday season.

Peace be with you and your family this holiday season.

Merry Christmas

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