APOLOGIES: While we are not certain of our blogging future in 2016, given book publishing obligations, we nonetheless apologize for letting so much time go by in between our Christmas Musings and this blog, also a Christmas essay in spirit. A vicious winter cold took us down, odd given the balmy weather here in the Blue Ridge, but it did give us time to lose ourselves once again by meandering through documentaries and old letters treating one of our favorite holiday subjects—The Christmas Truce of 1914. And again, we implore you to share these blogs with lots of folks, and please read the fascinating biographies of our Pickford Studios (small) stable of writers. Any support that we can garner, especially that which manifests in numbers, can help us justify keeping the blog going, as we struggle and juggle with the responsibilities of real life. (As though topics like racism and war are not real life.)
It is oddly appropriate that this essay on The Christmas Truce and its impact should finally be finished now, as we approach the middle of January, because that, in fact, is when the miracle of The Christmas Truce hit the papers throughout Europe. The stories trickled in, all across the countries, in January 1915. Oh, the military bigwigs and the powers of government tried to stifle and censor the heartwarming story, the startling news, but voluminous letters home turned to gossip which eventually turned to headlines, complete with pictures. Neither truths nor stories of hope can ever be permanently censored or controlled. To quote the lovely Princess Leia, when she is a prisoner in the Death Star “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” So let me suggest that before you read this blog, make yourself a cuppa, find a cozy place where there are still some Christmas decorations lying around, put on some old timey carols—preferably an all-male choir, if possible—and imagine that it is a century ago, and you are reading breaking news.. . .about a December 25th ceasefire. A Christmas Miracle.
THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE
(This blog is in two parts)
PART ONE: Hostile? Hostel? How is it spelled?
The Christmas Truce. To those of you who know about it, it is a sad but heartwarming snapshot in the great cosmic photo album of every Christmas that ever was. To those of you who have not heard of it yet, you owe it to yourselves to learn the story. The year was 1914. It was the first Christmas of The Great War, of World War I, of the global conflict ironically dubbed ‘the War to end all Wars.” Of course it didn’t, but all the more reason to learn what lessons we can.
The Yuletide ceasefire was a miracle that descended smack down into the middle of a brutal war—a war that would see boys fighting as soldiers: the youngest British soldier was twelve years old, the youngest Serbian was just eight.
It was the war where hostile humans introduced to each other death by poison gas, a long and agonizing demise if ever there was one, and this was also the first war where bombs fell from the sky. It was a war characterized by trench foot, battlefield amputations without morphine, undiagnosed shell shock, and the execution of those suffering from it, if they had the audacity (or good sense) to slip away from the war. Some of those shot for going AWOL were just terrified little boys. It was a war which, all told, left over 25 million human beings dead or wounded.
And then there was The Christmas Truce. For anybody who wants to add depth and breadth and bittersweet meaning to their Christmas holidays, there is the definitive book on the subject: Stanley Weintraub’s “Silent Night”. (It is worth noting that Stanley Weintraub has actually written a series of inspiring books about Christmas during wartime.) Happily for historians, there were legions of letters written back to families and friends, documenting this Christmas miracle that sprang from the trenches of that horrible war. But for those of you who want a poignant overview, it went something like this:
Christmas Eve was when it really all started. The Germans had settled in for the night, and were singing “Stille Nacht.” Silent Night was, after all, originally written with German lyrics by Joseph Mohr, its lovely melody by Franz Gruber . But the song was beloved by the English as well, so the British soldiers began singing it back in English. Contrapuntal, you might say. And then the Germans sang another carol, and the English one in reply, and so forth and so on, each song followed by a round of applause from “the enemy.” Only a “No Man’s Land”, as little as fifty yards wide in some places, separated the soldiers’ trenches. Then, both sides went to sleep in relative peace.
By all accounts, Christmas morning was a beautiful day, in contrast to the gloom and rain and snow that had preceded it. And then came the image that has become the symbol of The Christmas Truce. Recreated in documentaries and in feature films, I cannot look upon it without shedding a tear—and wondering what it must have been like to see the actual vision itself: a young, fresh faced German with pale skin and ruddy cheeks emerged out of the trenches carrying a Christmas Tree. (Now here is a point of history you must know: the Kaiser Wilhelm had sent thousands of small Christmas trees to the front, in hopes of raising the morale of the men. Even U-boats were sent Christmas trees, if you can believe it. It was really a rather addled use of war logistics, and my logistician father would be rolling in his grave over such silliness—or perhaps I should say, he would be a Tasmanian Devil over it, as he is cremated, and that is, I suspect, how ashes would manifest their disapproval.)
But the Christmas tree, the Tannenbaum, was still then a rather uniquely German tradition, and this is important because it adds to the notion that the Brits and Scots might not have known what the hell this crazy enemy soldier was doing, emerging from the trenches carrying a tree with lit candles on it. But some amazing, trusting impulse told those few soldiers with guns at the ready on Christmas morning not to shoot.
(A classic scene from the stunning Joyeux Noël, a movie about The Christmas Truce.)
Then, men on both sides slowly rose out of the trenches, waving their arms back and forth in a gesture that said they were not armed, there would be no fighting. The first brave few leapt from the trenches and made their way across No Man’s Land. And then, the miracle. Handshakes. Which led to an exchange of drinks and cigarettes. Which led to something that almost seemed like a scene from a boy’s school holiday party—each side got out their gift boxes from their royal “benefactors”, Princess Mary and Kaiser Wilhelm, to see who got what; tobacco and chocolate and beer and Schnapps and meats and puddings and all manner of treats were exchanged. People shared photographs of their families. Men bragged over pictures of wives and sweethearts. Soldiers even gave away parts of their uniforms, so that “the enemy” could have a coveted piece of “the enemy’s” battle dress.
On a more somber note, there was widespread burial of the dead, and there were prisoner exchanges. That the tension naturally associated with the large number of dead bodies—dead friends, dead comrades—did not blow The Christmas Truce up completely is a tribute to man’s innate desire for peace whenever and wherever possible.
It is worth noting at this point that we are not talking about a couple of dozen men. Amazingly, the Christmas Truce happened, spontaneously and sincerely, for about thirty miles up and down the Western Front. Roughly 100,000 troops were involved. Some men even encountered friends of friends. One German had been a waiter in London at the Great Central Hotel (now the Landmark London), and asked with excitement after old friends from there. A German who had been a barber in London for a time settled in to give free haircuts and shaves to everybody who wanted one, all British soldiers welcome. And nobody feared his blade. There were even jugglers.
Naturally, letters about The Christmas Truce flooded back to homes and hearths across the length and breadth of Europe, and brought the truth and details of this glorious incident to countries where the military and government would have such treason censored:
Even across the Great Pond, the staid Wall Street Journal was forced to admit: “What appears from the winter fog and misery is a Christmas story, a fine Christmas story that is, in truth, the most faded and tattered of adjectives: inspiring.”
And amazingly, the effects of the Truce were deeply entrenched, and long lasting. Many men on who were technically enemies during the hostilities remained friends after it all finally ended, and visited each other’s families, happily traversing the country with which they had formerly been at war. One of the most charming stories come from a biography entitled “Richard Schirrmann: The first youth hosteller: A biographical sketch by Graham Heath” (1962, International Youth Hostel Association, Copenhagen).
Richard Schirrmann, who was in a German regiment holding a position on the Bernhardstein, one of the mountains of the Vosges, wrote an account of events in December 1915: "When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines ..... something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over." He was separated from the French troops by a narrow No Man's Land and described the landscape as: "Strewn with shattered trees, the ground ploughed up by shellfire, a wilderness of earth, tree-roots and tattered uniforms." Military discipline was soon restored, but Schirrmann pondered over the incident, and whether "thoughtful young people of all countries could be provided with suitable meeting places where they could get to know each other." He went on to found the German Youth Hostel Association in 1919.
Just look what came of the Christmas Truce!
But perhaps the most endearing image of the Truce—perhaps even more so than the peaceful exchanging, trench to trench, of hymns to God--were the famous soccer games that sprang up over the thirty mile front. One began when men kicked around a frozen cabbage in the field, another one began when someone ran to a nearby farmhouse to get an actual football. Maybe the image touches us so because it reminds us that this is the traditional way that men, ever boyish by nature, get their hostilities out and vent their testosterone. Or perhaps because it embodies the age old notion that if men have differences, the mighty and powerful leaders should go into the boxing ring and settle it like gentlemen.
But gentlemen or no, there are always those shocking and amusing moments we face when we encounter a culture different than our own. Saxon Johannes Niemann, who served with the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment, wrote of his team’s reaction to realizing that the opposition wore kilts--and not much else: “Us Germans really roared when a gust of wind revealed that the Scots wore no drawers under their kilts—and hooted and whistled every time they caught an impudent glimpse of one posterior belonging to one of ‘yesterday’s enemies.’ ”
The Christmas Truce. What would you give to have witnessed it? Once again, as a fan of Stanley Weintraub, let me emphasize that this short blurb cannot possibly do his research—or The Christmas Truce—justice. It was a beautiful, miraculous, amusing, inspiring, rare, and a profoundly important event for humans, and only a full book can really capture it all. But I think you get the idea.
ONE BRAVE THING
The Christmas Truce of 1914. Timeless, iconic, precious, a gem in the muck of the history of warfare. The question becomes—as is always the case with the caveats of history—what do we do about it? What do we do with it?
To conclude the whole story by announcing that we should “pray for peace” seems a bit pollyanna. Cliché, to be sure, and therefore an insult to the memory of those who dared risk the wrath of their superiors, and stop playing at soldiers for just a day. (Or in some cases, a long pleasant week or two.) I suppose praying for peace is something we should all do, all day long, but then I think of my friend Peter—one of about two dozen actual Republicans residing in Los Angeles. He used to get incensed at all the bumper stickers reading “War is Not the Answer!” To which he would shriek, “What the hell are they talking about? War is always the answer. Ask six million Jews. Ask twelve million slaves.” Granted, Peter could get a bit myopic and hysterical, but his point is well taken. I believe the lesson we should take away from this is not that war is never the answer, but that we need to figure out a way to bungle and bumble our way into far fewer stupid and unnecessary wars.
I suspect that the neutral ground here isn’t whether or not we pray for peace, but rather, what tangible thing can we do within the confines of our own lives, to make a difference. Hmm? Or, more specifically, what qualities did those men display at The Christmas Truce that we might emulate, and in doing so, remember them with the honor they so richly deserve.
What qualities, indeed. Well. They were open-minded enough to understand that the enemy were not simply heathen murderers, in spite of what each side had been brainwashed to believe: there were stories of the enemy raping women and lancing babies with bayonets. Nope. Just guys who also wanted desperately to get home in time for Christmas. After all, the young soldiers on both sides had been told that the war would only last a few weeks. (Note to future military inductees: they always say that. Always.) But back to being open-minded towards people from another country and culture …people who don’t look or sound like you. There’s that to strive for. And you could even say that those who participated in The Christmas Truce were imbued with a momentary flood of imagination. They were able to imagine a day without war, and this half a century before John Lennon made it gorgeous and dreamy and fashionable. And what else? Hope. These trench soldiers were willing to give themselves over to hope. Hope is not to be underrated, for while war may be an inevitability among humans until the end of time, it is Hope that gets us through to the other side, that allows us to imagine a day without war. Life without war.
But more than any other quality, I think the soldiers who took part in The Christmas Truce showed bravery. What these soldiers were doing essentially constituted treason, and they could very well have been shot for it. Soldiers were shot for desertion, as well as for other forms of treason frequently throughout the hellish duration of World War I. They were blindfolded and shot at dawn for everything from falling asleep at sentry duty to wandering away from their group because they could no longer endure the carnage. Because they had, to put it succinctly, gone mad. So being shot for treason was a very real possibility, and court martial loomed as imminent for the duration of the Truce.
And nobody showed more courage than the lone German soldier who first popped up from the trenches, his cheeks rosy and his breath foggy in the bitter winter cold, holding that Christmas tree with its small blazing candles aloft. It is an amazing thing indeed that he was not shot.
So here lies the great challenge, the great difficulty for us, in naming “Bravery” as the chief quality we ought to embody--if we are to show our true respect for the men who participated in
The Christmas Truce. To honor, to emulate, to show gratitude for this gift they gave history (and every Christmas till the end of time) casts the gauntlet right into our ring. That places the burden for action right upon each of our shoulders, squarely, largely, immediately. This truth, this uncomfortable fact has everything to do with the definition of bravery. When it comes to the question of whether or not each of us, as individuals, is brave in our daily life, we first fall upon the sticky question of what the word means. And the problem with that is that we all know exactly what the word “bravery” means: Courage, valor, nerve, daring. Fearlessness, dauntlessness, boldness. Which means, in turn, that we have no choice but to simply go out and act bravely, if we are to honor the brave who gave their lives before us. For us.
Modern bravery takes many forms. No, there aren’t many chances to rescue damsels in distress, to run into burning buildings, to throw yourself on the hand grenade, to be the one to take the bullet. Superheroes are the stuff of fantasy, and most of the bravery we see in the movies takes place in situations far removed from the safety of suburbia …
… Which makes the choice to do something brave that much more uncomfortable still. Why do I say that? Because bravery, at its simplest, is doing something which you are afraid to do, for any litany of reasons, and which you keep finding a way to avoid doing, because it is easier to stay pleasantly within your comfort zone. I am not going to go all Tony Robbins on you and ask you to make a list of things you know you should do, but which you don’t do or haven’t done, because they require a level of personal bravado. And I fully realize that this epistle on The Christmas Truce and the modern manifestations of bravery have not made for a particularly jocular diatribe, mostly just serious musings about the meaning of courage in a land as droll as Suburbia, fraught as it is with the dangers of ennui.
But the fact remains that a century ago, hundreds of boys and men did risk everything from being cut down by rifle fire, to death by firing squad for giving aid and comfort to the enemy—they risked it all, in order to hoist themselves out of their trenches, cross No Man’s Land, and wish their fellow man a Merry Christmas. And maybe that’s a topic for a treatise that should remain on a serious wavelength. Maybe gravitas is the order of the day. After all, humor is all too often used in forums such as blogs to help jolly us gently away from the real message of the writing. The true subject at hand.
Look, let’s be honest. New Year’s rituals can be a drag. Gatherings with people you don’t really know or like, while paying for overpriced party favors and mediocre champagne can be a drag. And hey, those adult diapers being worn in increasing numbers as people wait for hours, nay days, to get a good spot in Time’s Square, so they can watch the ball drop, that sounds like a major drag. (I did it once, actually, and I got one word for you: COLD.) And then there is, of course, the cruelest drag of all—the hangover. Always seemed like a bad omen to start the new year with a hangover. Years ago, when I was even snarkier than I am now, I used to go position myself outside the 7-11 early on New Year’s Day in L.A. and watch all the agonized, hungover people in pajama bottoms and winter coats drag their asses in for beer, aspirin, and greasy Mexican with hot salsa—the trifecta cure. And I was one of those people come tax time who used to head off with friends, set up lawn chairs outside the Post Office on April the 15th, swig from a thermos of martinis, and watch the panicky people trying to get their returns filed in the last remaining seconds before midnight. . . .I was quite the polished turd of a human back then.
But where were we? Ah yes. New Year’s. And as for resolutions, let’s put that one out of its misery, Tout de Suite. This part is really simple: we only change something about ourselves when the pain of how we are acting supersedes the joy that the habit gives us, and the odds of that happening on the stroke of midnight, December 31st, are minuscule. So those resolutions are dead in the water, before the New Year even gets here. (As for me, I am trying a little reverse psychology on myself; rather than resolving to lose weight, this year, I am embracing the Tahitian practice of ha’ apori, where zaftig is truly considered more beautiful, and because of this, women fatten themselves up consciously, by a lovely and complex and ongoing diet, or perhaps I should say “sacred ritual”, of eating, eating, and more eating, so that the men in their society will view them as more attractive. Of course, this will entail a move to Tahiti sooner or later, but what the hell, change is good.)
So let us all agree to just forget the New Year’s resolutions. Forget the dieting, and the lists, and the endless promises which you always make and then, break, eroding your self-esteem just that much more. Which in turn makes keeping any promises you make to yourself that much closer to impossible. . .
But what about the rush?
Nobody wants to keep dreary resolutions, but everybody craves a rush. Everybody craves a rush. And if all the rushes were finally outlawed, we would spin around in circles in the grass until the dizziness of it all made us see stars and birds and butterflies and bridges to Erehwon. So how about I suggest that to celebrate the New Year, you give yourself the gift of one of the ultimate rushes. And what could be a greater rush than doing something incredibly brave? That sense that you are capable of more than you thought, that you are a greater human being than you suspected, that you do have untapped superhero powers after all, that the next time you are called upon for some form of suburban superhero-ness, you might just find the will within you. . because you have just slayed a very personal dragon.
Let me say that again. What could be a greater rush than doing something incredibly brave? Just one brave thing. These boys—these men who sallied forth with The Christmas Truce, emerging from trenches, risking getting shot by the enemy, or death by firing squad for treason when it was all over, they began with just one brave act.
Make it your single resolve to ponder what thing it is in your life that scares you to
death—and don’t try to tell me, or yourself, for even one moment that you don’t know exactly what it is. There is something in your life that you are afraid of: you have been dodging it, procrastinating, rationalizing, doing everything you can to bury the reality of it. If I must be so banal as to suggest, uh, well. . .it could be a call you must make, something you must flush down the toilet, an apology that is in arrears, a relationship you must fix, a job you must quit, a place you must move away from, even a confrontation you must have, if you have been silent witness for far too long.
The point is, there is something in your life—we all have things in our life that we must do, and we have been afraid to do it. It’s time. Do it for all the millions of people who have been brave, and who, in giving their lives as a part of the bravery, have made you and yours the ultimate beneficiaries. Those who have given their lives so you could spend your life (or at least an inordinate chunk of it) sitting on your fat ass reading natterings like mine.
One brave thing.
Like that young soldier holding the Christmas Tree with the little candles, holding it high and proud, and popping his head up through the mist, then walking, ever so gingerly, and probably very terrified, through No Man’s Land. And then you, yes I’m talking to you, muster up the strength to do it. You will most certainly feel a rush. And you will feel just a little bit reborn. And this is, after all, the season for it.
… As I at long last finish this overdue blog, and go to take the dog for a late night walk, I notice that it is finally snowing, for the first time this whole Christmas season, in our beautiful Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains. And let me take this opportunity to wish you Joyeux Noël.
POST SCRIPT: I’m going to say it one more time: One Brave Thing. Because here’s what. Not everybody is brave enough, defiant enough, unorthodox enough, “outside the box” enough to defy the entire higher command and fraternize with the enemy on Christmas. Many of the letters home, for example, writing long and poetic passages about the thirty mile Christmas Truce, mention one bitter, niggling, carping little mustachioed man who staunchly refused to participate in the Truce, choosing instead to sit in the trenches, arms crossed in a pout, making plans to show ‘em all, whip things back into shape, when he could finally muster enough power to give volks a piece of his mind: he was in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry, and his name was Corporal Adolf Hitler. You don’t want to be like him now, do you?
“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” -Albert Einstein