“It is Christmas in the heart that puts Christmas in the air.”
W. T. Ellis
It is well documented that over the past 12,000 years of human existence, there has never been “peace on Earth” on any day. Is there a more visceral holiday wish for anyone that’s ever been fighting in war, or even amidst a war?
Holiday season, 1970, Dublin, Ireland. I am a 20-year-old student spending my 3rd year of university at Dublin’s National University (UCD). Walking back to my flat from a party, some time after 3:00 AM, through the peaceful quiet of St. Stephen’s Green, I pause to admire my favorite statue – Theobald Wolfe Tone, leader of the 1798 Rebellion. It wasn’t the first time I’d admired the striking, 10 foot modern bronze on its 3 foot tall square polished granite base. In the early morning Dublin mist, the abstract visage made me particularly mindful of the sacrifice (his life) that this wealthy Protestant gave to Ireland’s Nationalist cause. It was sometime after 3:30 AM when I continued on. Sometime shortly after 4:00 AM the statue vaporized – plastic explosives on the back side hidden by bushes. Fortunately, the only damage was to property.
19 December 1777, the Continental Army marched in to its 6-month winter encampment at Valley Forge. The village of Valley Forge was in the middle of the Great Valley, the wealthiest agricultural and industrial region (water powered mills) of the 13 colonies. Yet the enlisted men suffered through that Christmas nearly starving on “fire cake” (fried flour & water). For three weeks food was absurdly scarce to feed between 8,000 – 10,000 troops all due to incompetence and lack of central planning. Neither the enlisted men’s diaries nor Washington’s letters were kind during these weeks. By mid-January, the food issue was solved, but it was a bleak Christmas.
For me, the Web’s greatest asset is its ability to tell people’s stories. The earliest tragedy of World War I was its failure to be over by Christmas 1914 – as so much propaganda had predicted. Of all the poignant moments within the catastrophe of that pointless war was the famous Christmas Truce of 1914. In the late 1980’s singer/songwriter John McCutcheon told of this event with heart-rending lyrics. The creator of this U-Tube video of John’s song has paired the lyrics with moving art and photos.
The bitterly satirical 1969 film, Oh! What a Lovely War effectively dramatizes this seminal event:
In recent years, revisionist have questioned this incident citing that it romanticized war. Recent scholarship indicates such Christmas Day truces, unofficial although many may have been, did exist – and not just in World War I.
Yet the bitter irony of juxtaposing the sacred and the profane is belted out later in Oh! What a Lovely War when a soldier sings, “It was Christmas Day in the cookhouse, the happiest time of the year, Men’s hearts were full of gladness and their bellies full of beer, When up popped Private Shorthouse, his face as bold as brass, He said, We don’t want your puddings, you can stick them up your tidings of co-omfort and joy, comfort and joy, o-oh ti-idings of co-omfort and joy. It was Christmas Day in the harem, the eunuchs were standing ’round, And hundreds of beautiful women were stretched out on the ground, Along came the wicked Sultan, surveying his marble halls. He said, Whaddya want for Christmas boys, and the eunuchs answered tidings of co-omfort and joy, comfort and joy, o-oh ti-idings of comfort and joy…” (Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)
The Wall House in Elkins Park, PA, dates from 1688. It has seen a lot of war. Two rooms are devoted to its World War II era residents. Besides letters to and from the Front among family members, holiday trees reflected the realities of war. In the picture above, center, is a field hospital “tree” decorated with blue and white ribbon/paper and painted tongue depresses. To the right, is a small living room tree decorated in paper and tin ornaments. The prized German-made glass ornaments were unavailable and unpatriotic.
“I had always thought there was no recognizable smell for impending death, but this country reeked of it…It was everywhere, no one left unscathed, no one left untouched, no one emotionally unscarred…It was the only time in my life I’ve ever felt a mutual, unconditional love for man and mankind…” James Worthington, Silent, Holy Night: Respite in Vietnam
I’ll be traveling in South East Asia in February and March for the first time. That same 20-year-old kid that escaped being vaporized in 1970 along with Theobald Wolfe Tone, narrowly missed being drafted earlier that year in the first military draft lottery, or else this might be my second trip. I know/knew Vietnam Vets, some are no longer alive having succumbed to the demons of post-war life. I was lucky. Instead of Vietnam, I was in Ireland that Christmas. In his memoir, Silent, Holy Night: Respite in Vietnam, John Worthington reminds me what Christmas 1970 may have been like.
Peace on Earth, a tenuous dream that we humans never want to give up, yet never want to try. Worldwide, we celebrate our cycles of rebirth year after year – solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah – hoping that some year the magic will work. Let’s not stop the hope.