For 30 Christmases, I and so many others in Northern Ireland have prayed for a peaceful New Year. And for three decades, the din of war has drowned out the softer voices of reason and compromise. But today I hear something new and heartening: the first sounds of a real peace.
As a columnist for a newspaper here, I have advocated nonviolent ways to settle differences. As a reporter, I've recorded the tears, the distress, and the horror of the conflict. It has not been easy to keep faith in the better way during the dark years, when peace was "dropping slow," as Yeats said - or not dropping at all.
But today people here feel a sense of wonder. A fragile peace has been made. It is a surprise, a relief. It arrives with a niggling worry that it may not last and a fervent hope that it will.
My mind goes back to the city of Londonderry and a particular December. My editor asked me to search out and record any hints of Christmas peace in that beautiful but scarred city. Sadly, I found no real peace in that place of long memories of past wrongs.
Instead, I filed a story about a forlorn Christmas tree shining bravely in the square as children sang ancient carols that seemed to evaporate in the cold night air. At a time of terrorist bombs, murders, and reprisals, the lights on this and other Christmas trees silently condemned the worst of human behavior in what should be a season of goodwill.
I recall my native village of Bessbrook, nestled in the rolling green countryside near the border with the Irish Republic. My boyhood memories are of simplicity, camaraderie, and a peaceful rural life. Each Christmas morning I would arise before dawn to walk through the village by flashlight, singing carols with others while lights in houses twinkled a warm message.
But even there, later, reprisal killings stunned the community. Today's peace will not instantly remove memories of suffering and pain. As the mother of a young girl killed in a bomb blast told me, "People tell us that 'time will heal.' Time does not heal, it only teaches us how to cope." It may take a long time for peace to put down roots here.
Yet today we are beginning to hope that peace will last. The peace settlement is imperfect. Many hurdles remain. Will it endure? Will peace slip away again? There have been cease-fires before, but this one seems different.
TV news bulletins about deaths and injuries from sectarian violence have been replaced by mundane reports on farm policy, the water supply, school curricula. People are becoming more aware and concerned about casualties from traffic accidents, a situation long overshadowed by the toll from "the troubles."
Fewer soldiers patrol the streets. Traffic jams are the result of Christmas shoppers, not Army roadblocks. Guests at dinner parties talk more about the future and less about the past. An Israeli woman living here observed that "the unthinkable has happened." A businessman told me that he and his colleagues are eager to discuss ways to build a better economy with new government officials - officials who now seem to have real control over North Ireland's affairs. (It used to be that everything was referred to London for approval.)
Everyone seems to want to get down to the business of everyday life, to draw a line under the past and start building a better future for all.
It is not euphoria. But for the first time in 30 years, one dares to hope that the best is yet to be. Never in my lifetime has the message of "peace on earth, goodwill to men" felt so poignant, so challenging, or so real.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society