The Bidens stand in front of a Christmas tree.

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden visit Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C., on December 22, 2023.

(Photo: Children's National Hospital)

A Visit from Uncle Joe and Auntie Jill

What sort of story would the president and first lady read to children in a hospital in Gaza, assuming there is a hospital in Gaza that is still functioning?

A few days before Christmas Eve, President Joe Biden and the First Lady Jill Biden traveled to a well-endowed children's hospital in Washington, D.C. Their visit was in keeping with the long-standing White House tradition of bringing tidings of comfort and joy to patients and their families. Since the Truman administration, it's been the first lady who has made the journey. This time, however, the president accompanied the first lady. For the event, she chose to read aloud "A Visit from St. Nicholas," commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas," a poem written in 1822 by Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), a professor of Greek and Hebrew literature. While the first lady alternated between reading the text and showing the illustrations to her audience, her husband sat solemnly by her side.

Clement Moore married 19-year-old Catherine Elizabeth in 1813. He wrote the poem for their six children (three more were born later), and on Christmas Eve in their home in New York City, he read it aloud to their dinner guests. A man of letters known for his academic and literary accomplishments, Moore was in no hurry to acknowledge to the world that he, the author of the first Hebrew dictionary in the U.S., had composed such a light-hearted and whimsical tale. His portrait of St. Nicholas was drawn from both European and American sources, including a history of New York and its Dutch origins. The author of this chronicle recounts the dream of an actual Dutch colonist who imagined St. Nicholas descending to earth in a flying wagon, which became the sleigh in Moore's poem.

Behind the president and his wife, seated on cardinal-red chairs, was the largest of three prominent Christmas trees. Beautifully wrapped presents beneath the trees and as a separate display completed the picture of an idyllic Christmas Eve. No doubt the children were tickled pink to have the president and first lady right there in front of them sharing what has become the quintessential holiday tale—of a droll little man delivering presents to children everywhere with the help of flying reindeer and an inexhaustible supply of gifts and cherry-nosed bonhomie.

The genocide is ongoing. But Uncle Joe and Auntie Jill carry on with their reading as though nothing is wrong, as if the killing of Palestinian kids is merely an unfortunate backdrop to an otherwise delightful and perfectly innocent celebration of Christmas.

What are we to make of a president and a first lady who face an audience of children afflicted with a range of medical problems and read them a story about a charming but fictitious event written for the author's presumably healthy, well-cared-for children? It's not much of a stretch to imagine families watching the telecast of the reading and thinking about how blessed we are to have a president and a first lady who are loving and compassionate, attuned to the needs of children, particularly those who are coping with severe, life-threatening illnesses, and willing to manifest the spirit of Christmas in word and deed? At the end of the reading, President Biden reminds the audience of something his father used to say: "Keep the faith. We're going to beat all this. I promise you... God bless you all."

How warm, how cheery and bright. The perfect message for hospitalized children on a winter's night. A few questions come to mind, though: Who's going to beat what? Does God bless all children or only certain children? Does He bless children in Gaza the same as He blesses children at the hospital in Washington D.C. where the Bidens went? If He blesses children in Gaza, how would we know?

The words "Gaza" and "Palestine" never crossed the lips of Joe and Jill Biden during their visit. Nor did they say anything about the kids in Gaza undergoing amputations without anesthetics, the newborn babies dying because there aren't enough incubators, the families executed in cold blood in their homes by soldiers, the thousands of women and children already killed, and the thousands more who will surely die in the coming weeks from hunger, disease, exposure, or the violence of air and artillery strikes. (I realize of course that presenting this reality would be completely inappropriate for an audience of children, let alone children coping with serious illnesses. My point is simply to highlight the galling disconnect of the entire event. In Gaza, hospitals are deliberately targeted. The genocide is ongoing. But Uncle Joe and Auntie Jill carry on with their reading as though nothing is wrong, as if the killing of Palestinian kids is merely an unfortunate backdrop to an otherwise delightful and perfectly innocent celebration of Christmas.)

What sort of story would the president and first lady read to children in a hospital in Gaza, assuming there is a hospital in Gaza that is still functioning and has adequate medical supplies, to say nothing of electricity, clean water, food, and beds? Of course, only in an alternate universe would the Bidens be invited to Gaza as ambassadors of a friendly nation defending the rights of the Palestinian people while condemning Israel's genocidal onslaught. In this universe (the only one we actually know of), Joe Biden is okay with the deadly shelling of civilian homes and infrastructure, and the nonstop killing of mostly women and children. And since his wife, with a doctorate in education, hasn't issued a word of protest to the policies of the Biden administration, I think it's safe to assume that the public version of Dr. Jill Biden is onboard with those same policies and has no moral qualms about the evisceration of Gaza and the dispossession of its people. (I have no idea of what her private convictions might be or if she shares them with her husband.)

As a former storyteller specializing in children's stories, I once memorized "The Night Before Christmas," and during the holiday season, performed it in classroom and library settings as a kind of rap. These days I'm less inclined to recite Clement Moore's original poem when endangered children not only in Gaza but the world over have no reason to expect a late-night visit from a pudgy, fanciful benefactor. In that spirit, I have come up with my own version of the poem:

It was the night before Christmas or thereabouts. The town was silent. There were no revelers on the streets, and all the shops were closed. The only light came from the candles in people's homes, and even those were few and far between. A stranger walking down the blacked-out streets couldn't help but feel that something was in the air—a kind of expectancy, the sense that this night would be like no other. All the children could feel it too. They snuggled up as close as they could in whatever served them as a bed and tried to keep each other warm through the winter night. If there were blankets, they were given to the youngest and most vulnerable. The silence was so complete, the slightest sound was amplified many times over.

In the tall building by the school, the members of a large family occupied the first four floors. Most of the windows were broken. The children, like children elsewhere in the town, did their best to fall asleep by imagining pitchers brimming with fresh water, bowls of fruit, stacks of flatbread still steaming, trays of nuts and dates and candies. They tried not think of what they had seen on the streets the day before and the day before that going back weeks, months. They tried not to hear those sounds—the sounds of people trapped, calling for help until their voices gave out and their silence was all that remained. Most of all, the children tried to ignore the hunger that gnawed at them night and day.

Sami, one of the children, was nine years old. He had dark eyes and curly hair, and a round, sensitive face. Unable to sleep, he got up, went to the unbroken window of his family's apartment, and looked out. The moon shone brightly as freshly fallen snow. Its light illuminated a massive crater where residential buildings once stood. A missile strike had flattened them. Many of the families who lived in the buildings were either buried in the rubble or had been taken to the nearest hospital where their chances of surviving their injuries were minimal. Sami looked up at the sky. If there were stars, he couldn't see them. Smoke and clouds of ash from the most recent bombing concealed the view.

He remembered the story a friend had told him. It was about a kind old saint who visits children on Christmas Eve. His friend also said the old saint had a magic wagon that took him wherever he wanted to go, and it was filled with presents and treats of all kinds. As Sami squinted to see better, he noticed something small and bright way up in the sky, higher than the tallest building, brighter than anything he had ever seen before. Maybe it's true, he thought. Maybe there is an old saint with a magic wagon, and this year he's coming here because he knows we need many things. If it's really him, I hope he brings us bread.

Ever since the bakery closed, Sami and his father had gone looking for someone still selling freshly baked bread. But all the bakeries were either shuttered or blown to pieces by rockets, and he and his siblings were hungry all the time. His mother wasn't able to nurse his little sister, and baby formula, now in short supply, had become very expensive.

The bright light grew brighter, larger. It was traveling from the east, straight toward the boy and the apartment where he lived. Maybe this year, he thought, we will have a happy Christmas like the one in that story.

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