“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” (Luke 2:1)
Inside the Museum of Occupations and Freedom in Tallinn, Estonia, there’s a beautiful handmade Christmas card. The museum, which I visited in September, recounts how the Nazi German and especially Soviet Russian regimes ruled over the Estonian people. Every aspect of life came under inspection, including religious practices.
The Soviets banned Christmas celebrations. If caught, someone could be shipped to a labor prison in Siberia — just for sending a Christmas card! But it didn’t stop everyone from making them or continuing other illegal Christmas celebrations. Some families gathered privately on Christmas Eve for a fancier meal and to sing songs and light candles in their homes.
I heard similar stories across the region. In Latvia, a group publicly sang the Lord’s Prayer set to music as an act of resistance. In Lithuania, putting a cross on a hill was an act of political defiance against the Russian empire.
As Luke reminded us in his Gospel, Jesus was born under the shadow of such imperial rule. In fact, dictates by the ruler off in a foreign land impacted where Jesus was even born.
For most of us in the U.S., we don’t really understand what it meant for Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the other characters in our nativities to live under the rule of an invading authoritarian nation. But older generations in the Baltics know. They remember what it means to live under the rule of an imperial Russia that restricted their travel, income, songs, and religious celebrations.
Perhaps such memories of occupation are why people in the three Baltic nations understand what’s happening right now in Ukraine. Across the region, Ukrainian flags outnumber national ones. The flag of the besieged nation dots the streets, hanging from apartment balconies, greeting people entering shops or restaurants, and showing up on billboards and street art. Government buildings alternate their own flags with Ukrainian ones. Churches display blue-and-yellow flags and donation boxes to support Ukrainian refugees. Memorials and museums dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust or the Soviet occupation also fly the Ukrainian flag alongside posters of Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
The people of the Baltics feel the Russian war against Ukraine in ways we do not. And the memories it conjures also offer insights into the world in which a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes entered. Rather than forgetting the war to enjoy our festivities, perhaps focusing on the persecution of people in Ukraine can bring the text alive this year.
Brian Kaylor is president & editor-in-chief of Word&Way.