So what would Einstein think about Christmas? The question is relevant for me because I have a Christmas column to write, and this is my last chance to do so — U.S. 1 has no issue on December 24 and by December 31, the eve of 2015, Christmas 2014 will be very old news.
Einstein doesn’t seem like a first choice for a Christmas greeting. “Bah humbug,” might be the first words out of the mouth of the brilliant man, who lived in Princeton from 1933 until his death in 1955 and who famously derided Princeton as “a quaint and ceremonious village of puny demigods on stilts.” Walking around town today, or getting driven out to a shopping mall and witnessing the excesses of Black Friday and all the other trappings of a holiday gone wild, good old uncle Albert might raise an eyebrow and shrug his shoulders in dismay.
Or he might just ask for a pass, explaining that he was born and raised in the Jewish faith and thereby had no special interest in the holiday. Or explain that his Nobel Prize was in physics, not theology, and understanding that energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared is not the same as understanding why or how a baby born in a manger in Bethlehem could signal God’s intention to save man from sin.
We know that Einstein didn’t think much of organized religion, including his own. As he wrote in a 1954 letter to Eric Gutkind, a German philosopher, “For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most primitive superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups . . . I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.”
In another 1954 letter he wrote: “I am convinced that some political and social activities and practices of the Catholic organizations are detrimental and even dangerous for the community as a whole, here and everywhere. I mention here only the fight against birth control at a time when overpopulation in various countries has become a serious threat to the health of people and a grave obstacle to any attempt to organize peace on this planet.”
And we knew also that Einstein, while he compared Jesus to such “great and pure personages” as Gandhi and Moses, he also advised people not to believe everything the spiritual authorities told them. As he was quoted as saying in a 1943 interview, “It is quite possible that we can do better things than Jesus, for what is written about him in the Bible is poetically embellished.”
But I have great faith in Einstein. Even though I do not know much about him, what little I do know comes largely from reading “Albert Einstein, The Human Side,” a collection of Einstein’s personal letters selected and edited by Helen Dukas, his secretary, and Banesh Hoffmann, who as a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton collaborated with Einstein. Call it blind faith, but from that book I suspect that Einstein might have more to say about Christmas than you would guess.
The December 5 release from the Princeton University Press announcing the launch of the Digital Einstein Papers providing “full public access to the translated and annotated writings of the most influential scientist of the 20th century” was surely a sign from above, a star over the cyber-horizon. So my quest for an Einstein Christmas greeting began at einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu.
Sure enough, a search of the Einstein archives turns up plenty of references to Christmas. For Einstein and his contemporaries, just as for many of us today, the Christmas holiday loomed as a marker of another year passing, one in which we probably have not accomplished all that we set out to do.
The holiday appeared as a welcome respite from the frenetic year-end activities leading up to it. “I urgently need a rest during the Christmas holidays,” he wrote on December 12, 1915, to his son Hans. Given the battles of World War I raging in the background, the holiday period must have been more stressful than usual. “Coming across the border is very uncertain at present,” he wrote. That might explain why Einstein added the following: “I have sent my Christmas gift to you in the form of money, according to your wish.”
While I found no evidence of Einstein writing any Christmas cards, he seemed to appreciate those that arrived at his door. “Your Christmas card is truly of exquisite humor and tickled me very much,” he wrote on December 28, 1920, shortly after getting a card from a botanist at Trinity College in Cambridge.
Like lots of us today, Einstein appears to have equated Christmas with family. In a 1920 letter Einstein talks about his upcoming travel plans and a trip to the Zugerberg area in Switzerland but cautions, “I don’t want to stay longer because Christmas is nicest at home.”
Einstein seems to have had as much trouble as some of us in selecting the perfect Christmas gift (and he couldn’t run over to the CVS on Christmas Eve to fill a black hole in a stocking). In December of 1917 he sent a letter to his two sons, Hans and Eduard (or “Tete”), with some explanatory notes for the presents he had chosen:
“I have sent you both five very fine and interesting books for Christmas. This occupied me for an entire day, because the selection was difficult and, in addition, I needed an export permit from the military authority. They belong to you and Tete together. I did not divide them between you. Reading and understanding is what is important, not possession.”
In another letter to sons Hans and Eduard, Einstein asked the children for help: “What do you two want from me for Christmas?” And then offered some creative — if impossible — ideas: “Now there will be peace, I hope. Then a Wall of China won’t exist between us anymore, and letters will arrive quickly again.”
When the big day finally came for Einstein, pure exhaustion was one of the takeaways. Over the final weeks of 1922, Einstein participated in a five-week lecture tour that ended on Christmas Eve in Japan, speaking before a crowd of 3,000. His account of the final day was surreal: “I was dead, and my corpse was driven back to Moji, where it was carried to a children’s Christmas party and where it had to play the violin for the children,” the “Ave Maria.”
Given all the questions people posed to Einstein, it is not surprising to note that at least twice Einstein responded to specific inquiries about Christmas and its meaning. The first was in a letter sent from Princeton and dated December 20, 1935. Dukas and Hoffmann reprint the letter in their book and note that it was probably sent in response to an oral request:
It gives me great pleasure to picture you children joined together in joyful festivities in the radiance of Christmas lights. Think also of the teachings of him whose birth you celebrate by these festivities. Those teachings are so simple — and yet in almost 2,000 years they have failed to prevail among men. Learn to be happy through the happiness and joy of your fellows, and not through the dreary conflict of man against man! If you can find room within yourselves for this natural feeling, your every burden in life will be light, or at least bearable, and you will find your way in patience and without fear, and will spread joy everywhere.”
Thirteen years later Einstein was asked to prepare a Christmas message for an international radio broadcast on November 28, 1948.
Einstein is not around for me to ask, but I have a feeling that he would say yes if I asked him if I could borrow the 1948 message to use as my holiday greeting to all of you, believers and non-believers alike:
“Christmas is the festival of peace. Every year it comes in its own good time. But peace inside and among us can come only through persistent effort. This holiday reminds us that all people yearn for peace. Every year it admonishes us to be vigilant against the enemies of peace [who] lurk inside all of us, lest they cause harm not only at Christmastime but throughout the year.”