Day 10: Hope
Just as you know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, but may not recall the most famous reindeer of all, you probably know about the Sword Art Online anime adaptation’s Christmas episode, but you may not be familiar with Kirito and Asuna’s first Christmas in Aincrad. Sword Art Online Progressive is something a retcon series. The original Sword Art Online novel skipped from the first level of Aincrad all the way to the 75th floor, nearly two years later. SAO Progressive goes back and fills in Kirito and Asuna’s adventures on the intervening floors, offering character and relationship development and crunchy world-building details that were missing from the original story.
The third volume of SAO Progressive finds the protagonists on the fourth floor of Aincrad, a water-themed level. It’s Saturday, 24 December, 2022, about a month and a half since 10,000 players were trapped in the virtual world of SAO. As Kirito and Asuna are visiting a small floating village, Kirito learns that the two leading guilds of front line fighters have organized a Christmas party back in the main city of the fourth floor. The endearingly dorky Kirito muses, “A few days ago, it had occurred to me that some special day was coming up. December 24…meant the day before December 25, making it…something eve…” And a little later, when Asuna wishes a mutual friend “Merry Christmas,” Kirito tries to repeat the salutation but comically mangles it.
Because he’s got a bad reputation among some of the front line fighters, Kirito was not invited to the aforementioned party (not that he minds). Kirito urges Asuna not to let their temporary partnership keep her from attending the guilds’ Christmas party, but Asuna shoots down this suggestion, saying she never intended to go. While Kirito is sometimes oblivious, he’s also thoughtful enough to realize while he has no attachment to Christmas Eve, it might be more important to his erstwhile partner. Kirito awkwardly suggests “Having our own…Christmassy thing,” but Asuna dismisses this suggestion as well, noting that the tropical island vibe of the village doesn’t feel like the right setting for observing Christmas.
Hardly does she get the words out when SAO promptly starts snowing. Apparently someone wanted to make sure the players trapped in this virtual world could experience a white Christmas. “‘Why did it have to do this…? …Just when we escaped the main city and came here, so I could avoid thinking about Christmas,’ [Asuna] mumbled. ‘It’s not fair.'” She also takes the opportunity to gripe that if Kirito wanted to do something for Christmas, he should have said so sooner so that she could prepare appropriately. Kirito realizes what this means: “The three essential elements to any Japanese Christmas celebration were fried chicken, cake, and presents,” and they have no presents to give each other.
Processing all this, Kirito then apologizes to Asuna for not keeping better track of the holiday’s approach. “…it’s messed up,” he says, “If we can’t take our mind off the game for this day, at the very least…” Asuna quite reasonably concedes that if she’d really wanted to do anything for Christmas, she should have brought it up herself. At this juncture, Kirito has an epiphany, based on his knowledge as a beta tester of the game. He tells Asuna that he doesn’t have anything physical to give her, but does want to give her something…
Setting out in their gondola, Kirito navigates the fourth floor’s winding rivers until reaching a thick wall of fog. Passing through the mist, they find a grand island fortress, festooned with snow and banners. “‘…It’s beautiful,’ Asuna murmured, staring at the snowy castle as we approached. ‘More beautiful than any castle I’ve seen in real life.'” Asuna thanks Kirito for the lovely sight of the snowy castle, but he admits that this is only half the present he intends to give her.
It turns out that the castle is a base of the Dark Elves, one of a few competing factions of NPCs in the game, and the one with which Kirito and Asuna have allied themselves for the purposes of story quests. The castle’s front garden, dusted lightly with snow that glitters in the lamplight, is a work of art unto itself, but Kirito leads Asuna through the castle to a second lovely garden, this one centered around a massive juniper. And beneath the tree’s boughs they find Kizmel, the oddly realistic Dark Elf NPC they’ve fought alongside in quests related to elf war storyline. This is the other half of Kirito’s gift, and Asuna rejoices to be reunited with this ally.
A variety of other events occur, but as the day draws to its close, Asuna thanks Kirito again. “It was more enjoyable and lovely than any Christmas Eve I had in the real world.” Asuna explains that because her parents were always so busy, she usually spent Christmas on her own. When Kirito notes that they lack a proper Christmas cake, Asuna answers that they can have one next year. Her offhand comment makes Kirito’s thoughts turn sober at the realization that they might still be trapped in SAO in a year’s time. He asks if Asuna was thinking about next year. She answers:
“Until now, I’ve been trying not to think about the distant future. I told myself that I would only focus on what needed to be done each day. But that’s just the same as trying to run from the future. Not even just thinking about the number of floors left or how much time it would take…I was just trying to avoid facing the question of how much longer I could survive in this place. But then I was sitting in my room, looking out the window…and it all just sort of…bubbled up inside me… I want to survive until next Christmas and see the snow falling in Aincrad again.”
Kirito finds himself at a loss for words, and admits that he is too weak to say or do anything to encourage her, or to guarantee her safety in the coming year. To this, Asuna replies, “Then get stronger… Get stronger. Until one day…you can tell me, and other frightened people like me, that it’ll be okay.”
Alongside the obviously hugely important virtues of trust and love, the New Testament repeatedly includes a third key virtue: hope. Meeting your favorite elf in a snowy castle is nice and all, but it’s this last speech from Asuna that really ties in to Christmas. Though she doesn’t use the word, what Asuna is talking about is hope. She had no hope for the future, so she did her best to concentrate only on the present. But Christmas challenged her to want more than a harried day-to-day existence. Christmas invites Asuna, and us, to hope for something. Part of Christmas is looking back at a past historical event and pondering the reality of God entering this world, but another part of Christmas should be about finding a reason to live and to look forward to something in the future.
And what is Asuna’s exhortation to Kirito but a call for good news?
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
When Jesus reads this passage from Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth, he declares that he is the fulfillment of it. To put it another way, Jesus came to tell frightened people like us “that it’ll be okay.” Jesus came into our world and offered hope, resurrection, the chance to survive and see good in the future. Christmas is an entirely fitting occasion for Asuna to rediscover hope for the future, because Jesus’ coming, with all that it entails—i.e., the cross and the empty tomb—is the ultimate source of hope. Christmas should stir up hope within us, and should push us to share that good news with others.