A 1968 Holiday Moment

Most of us look to the holiday season as a time to reconnect with family, to enjoy fellowship with friends and colleagues and to demonstrate gratitude to those who have assisted us during the year. We also look upon it as a time where we seek, in the words of the Bible, peace on earth and goodwill toward men.

In every year there has been a need for the peace and harmony that we so much desire at the holidays. Right now in 2022, for example, the world is in the midst of an ugly war in the Ukraine and there are bitter political divisions in our own country.

Nevertheless, if there were ever a year that needed an uplifting holiday moment, it was 1968. While 2020 is worthy of consideration, I still believe 1968 was the most difficult and tumultuous year in my lifetime. There was an ongoing war in Vietnam and President Lyndon Johnson’s related decision not to run for re-election, major assassinations (Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy), riots in many big cities and on college campuses, and then at the Democratic National Convention. In addition, there was a Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, a segregationist candidate for President who won electoral votes, a spike in crime and a gaping generation gap, among other developments.

And so by the holiday season of 1968, people had seen enough of the craziness, and needed some symbol of the peace that we all crave during this time.

That symbol of peace was to come, quite literally, from the heavens.

The United States was less than a few months away from putting a man on the moon in fulfillment of President John F. Kennedy’s pledge in 1961 to achieve this goal before 1970. There was a strong bipartisan consensus in favor of the space program, one that was shared by the President-elect, Richard M. Nixon, who had won a closely contested election.

The last major mission prior to the actual landing on the moon was Apollo 8, which circled the moon on December 24 and transmitted back to earth extraordinary photographs, including one called Earthwise that showed the earth above the lunar horizon, with the sun illuminating Africa and South America. In a broadcast from space, the three astronauts aboard the mission, Bill Anders, James Lovell and Frank Borman, took turns reciting the story of creation in the first chapter of Genesis that begins “in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”.   

That Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (depending on where you were), approximately one billion people, roughly one  person in four on earth at the time, watched the broadcast live, partly due to the recently launched COMSAT satellite. In addition, millions more around the world heard the immediately released recording. 

Back on earth, I was sixteen years old that year.  To put it mildly, our family television, which dated back from the fifties and couldn’t get Channel 2 for some reason, was desperately in need of replacement. (We weren’t poor; getting a new television just wasn’t a priority of my father.)   I had started my first job, as a clerk in a delicatessen a few months earlier, so I had a few dollars and I decided to buy the family a new television as a Christmas present.  The new set was still black and white, but it had a bigger screen and got all the channels. 

In any event, I do remember gathering around the new television with my siblings and watching the inspiring pictures from space being transmitted back to earth amid the reading from Genesis.  

Maybe it was a coincidence, but 1969 proved to be a somewhat calmer year than 1968, and maybe the unifying and uplifting message from our three astronauts played some role in calming things down.  In any event, just as in 1968, this is the time to come together in peace and harmony.  May God bless you and your families.         


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