“Creole cuisine, the food of New Orleans, it’s a living thing. Nobody’s trying to stop it from changing; nobody said its got to end, so that’s why it’s still alive.”
Is there a beverage that defines the South? Creole and Cajun fusion? (or confusion) In my interview with Liz Williams, director of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum (SoFAB), she answers all and states the mission of this unique institution, “Look at cultural attitudes towards the foods, not just a recipe.”
“It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.” Confucius (551-479 BCE)
The estuary of the Thu Bon River is a watery maze of emerald green islands opening within a mile onto the South China Sea. For over one thousand years its villages prospered as major ports feeding the Champa Kingdom with trade, especially from China and Japan, superb fish and seafood. The decline of Champa gave rise to Vietnam’s influence, continued China/Japan trade and, by the 15th century, new Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish trading houses. The village of Hội An was a hot item on the South China seacoast.
As prosperity increased both population and agricultural production and given the fickle nature of alluvial rivers, the Thu Bon River began to fill with silt making navigation by ocean-going vessels difficult. By the early 19th century the port of Da Nang was replacing Hội An as the area’s major international trade center. The town slowly sank into obscurity sustained by the accumulated wealth of old merchant families and its abundant seafood and agricultural products. Its old 18 and 19th century cypress and ironwood buildings remained intact impervious to the river’s floods and their owners inability to modernize. More remarkable was that during the wars of the 20th century while Da Nang was in the middle as the site of both a major port and airport, Hội An a mere 10 miles south, was hidden among the reed covered islands of the Thu Bon estuary.
The silting of the river that threw Hoi An into a time warp allowed it to emerge after 1975 as the most intact pre-19th century village in Vietnam. In 1999, the Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an example of a Southeast Asian trading port of the 15th to 19th centuries. Some decry the “preserved-for-tourist” nature of the Old Town with its rows of shops and cafes in the old buildings. Yet the reality remains that Hoi An is today what made it famous centuries ago – a busy merchant town. With a population of 120,000, it’s once more a prosperous port but now the goods don’t sail out on ships, they’re packed in tourist suitcases.
Tan Ky House (101 Nguyen Thai Hoc St.) is one of several privately owned house museums in Hoi An that are prime examples of how these entrepreneurial families lived. Two stories tall, the street front of the house was always for business. The solid walls on either side of the door in the collage above are actually wood panels that can be removed to open the shop. The staircase to the left is to the second floor storeroom. The homes living quarters begin directly behind the shop surrounding two to three courtyards. The first sitting room contains the altar to the ancestors and, in Tan Ky, an elevated altar to Confucius. The detailed and elaborate interior woodwork as well as the 19th century mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture attests to the family’s prosperity. Tan Ky was particularly well situated running the full depth of the street with a direct opening to the waterfront in back.
Hoi An has a number of endowed “family temples,” a common method for wealthy Vietnamese families to broadcast their status and provide for the perpetual and public honoring of their ancestors. Many of these “chapels” are actually large temple/monastery complexes. One of the oldest, largest and most beautiful in Hoi An is the Tran Family Temple still sponsored by the family in its 15th generation.
A “guild system” among Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian merchants both regulated and governed trade as well as provided support groups. The Chinese in particular constructed several Assembly Halls which served as Confucian temples, hostels and a social gathering place for these ex-pat sailors. Japanese merchants constructed a Hoi An icon – the Japanese Bridge in the 16th century. More than just a bridge, it contains a small temple dedicated to the protection of sailors. The Assembly Halls are still active temples and social halls.
Although Hoi An was already in decline when the French put the Vietnamese Empire under its “protection,” French merchants and ex-pats found the charms of Hoi An sufficient to create a French Quarter just outside the old medieval town. The graceful tropical colonial architecture and tree lined streets with attractive shops and cafes make is a less hectic stroll than the Old City.
Hoi An is Vietnam, it is a tourist town, the streets are narrow, motor bikes and cyclos are everywhere, selling is in their blood so be prepared for constant pitches every step for everything from ice cream, postcards, chickens, paintings, street foods and, especially, silks – high quality made-to-order clothing and shoes take 1-1/2 days minimum with a reputable store. It’s a cornucopia of colors, smells and sounds. At least once a day for several hours, and during festivals, the cobbled stone streets of the Old City are closed to all motorized traffic. The absence of at least that noise certainly adds to the town’s charm. There is an admission price to most of the merchant houses, assembly halls and museums. A strip of tickets is purchased at one of several tourist offices in the Old City at a price of less that US$1.00 per venue.
Hoi An is a beautiful and relaxing town, especially surprising given its tourist nature. Within less than one mile are empty pristine white sand beaches. Surrounding the village are emerald green rice fields and vegetable farms. There are additional tourist “villages” for farming, sculpture and fishing but these are virtual recreations of life in the past and generally are excuses for more shopping. The land is flat and ideal for renting bikes. Mountains are in the distance and the fishing fleet actually fishes, it doesn’t just give tourists rides. Quiet hotels and a growing local middle class have spread out onto adjacent islands. Both residents and the town government keep the village clean, something not common in most of Vietnam. If satisfaction can be judged by the large numbers of foreign visitors, Hoi An has patiently, as Confucius advised, turned its silted river into tourist gold.
fishing boat – the eyes as so the ship can see the fish
next: Hoi An Part II – festivals, seafood and song
Vietnam: jungles, mountains, green and 1,956 miles (3260 km) of coastline (not counting islands) much of it pristine, undiscovered, wide, white sand beach. “Undiscovered” by a beach-hungry Western tourist world but for how long?
The 65 mile (110 km) trip from Hue to Hoi An is a beautiful coastal drive past fishing villages, wet lands and rice paddies with the road winding through the hills of the Truong Son Mountains. The postcard fishing village of Lang Co is situated between the Pacific and a perfect crescent lagoon dotted with boats. Tourism investment money is starting to develop the beach towns, but it will, hopefully, be some time before they’re condo canyons.
We were on our way from Hue to the UNESCO Heritage village of Hoi An, some 10 miles south of Da Nang. From Hue the passenger train line from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) hugs the same coast as the coastal highway, a 4 hour trip to Da Nang. From Da Nang you catch a taxi to make the 30-45 minute drive to Hoi An (cost $28 – $45/double train and taxi). As beautiful as the rail trip would be, I chose to arrange for a car and driver to make the trip to Hoi An with the option of stops on the way. For US$60/double this was a terrific day trip as well as transportation to our next destination.
I would have enjoyed wandering around the village of Lang Co, but on this day it was primarily a lunch stop. The Thanh Tam Seaside Resort is nicely designed. The main reception building contained a spacious restaurant decked over a sloping hill and opening onto a sweeping view of the Pacific at palm tree-top level. The palm trees create a large shaded sitting area at beach level. The rooms for the hotel were in separate beach front buildings. I did not see the rooms but TripAdvisor reviews are not kind. Of course there was a large store selling jewelry and clothing. There was no competition on either side of the resort for the peace of an enormous stretch of sand with beautiful views of the mountains.
For a tourist resort, the restaurant was surprisingly good. Specializing in seafood, there was a fine selection of grilledclams and oysters topped with a variety of savory sauces. Spring rolls were delicate and lightly fried. Prices were at the high end for Vietnam meaning that lunch or dinner for two will average US$25/30. (Our light lunch with espresso was $18/two).
The Hai Van Pass is the reason for making the overland trip by car – or if intrepid, by bicycle. The train dramatically hugs the coast around this finger of the Truong Son Mountains that literally juts into the Pacific Ocean creating a 1500 foot (497 m) barrier geographically dividing the country north and south. By car Highway 1 switchbacks up lush mountainsides, brushing clouds, opening vistas of the blue ocean set against the intense green of farm fields. This mountain barrier creates the moist microclimate that makes Hue and the Perfume River delta a unique ecosystem.
For over 1,000 years, Hai Van Pass (Pass of the Ocean Clouds) was the boundary between the Kingdoms of Vietnam and Champa. Even after the final conquest of Champa by Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty in the early 19th century, the Pass was deemed a strategic position through the Vietnam War. Pill boxes are next to a 19th century watch tower. Today the site’s a rather windy, shabby remnant of a violent past. One side of the road is lined with the ubiquitous tourist stalls selling the same trinkets, water, soda, cigarettes, scarves, postcards etc that you’ve seen so many times already. Your car literally will be surrounded by well meaning and persistent sales women. I admire their persistence, even while regretting that I do not need what’s for sale, because it’s certainly a peaceful pursuit after this site’s violent past millennium.
Having traveled to both Cambodia and northern Vietnam, I could see and understand the distinct break in artistic traditions between the Chinese Confucian influenced north Vietnam and the Hindu/Buddhist/Khmer Champa Kingdom of the south – there is a cultural divide. Da Nang’s Bao Tang Dieu Khac Champa Da Nang (Museum of Champa Art) is both a gem and the world’s largest repository of the exquisite sculpture of this civilization.
The rapidly sprawling rather charmless city of Da Nang looks like a new settlement. If there was a historic core or a building prior to 1975 it’s well hidden. Being both a major port and air base during the Vietnam War did make it a prime target for severe damage. With modern Vietnam’s penchant for getting on with the future there’s little to no evidence of that past war. Yet Da Nang’s future fame will result in the development of its miles of stunning beaches. Australian money has already begun to pour in starting major golf/hotel/condo resorts. Iconic China Beach is highly desirable real estate. Da Nang’s airport is undergoing major expansion. I know it would be politically correct to decry this future loss of pristine nature, but also patronizing. This is an ancient land. It changes.
All respectable Vietnamese buildings based on Confucian design principles have an entrance gate opening onto a small space backed by a freestanding wall – the Spirit Wall. To enter the courtyard one simply walked a short distance to the right or left around the wall. Easy for humans but not evil spirits who cannot sail through so effortlessly. This would be especially useful for an imperial capital. The moat enclosed fortified walls of the 2-1/2 square mile Hue Imperial City was home to hundreds of buildings – palaces, temples, administrative offices and housing – lakes, gardens fountains and the Forbidden Purple City – home to the Imperial family. This vast complex was “Versailles” for the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1946). After years of war wresting control from feudal lords, Gia Long, first Nguyen emperor, established the modern boundaries of Vietnam – fatefully, with a little help from the French. Yet even double gates and fortified walls could not prevent floods, nor could meticulous planning under Confucian principles protect from bombs and artillery. Tempered by this reality, what remains of the vast UNESCO World Heritage Site with its ongoing restoration is beautiful, serene and haunting.
Wandering freely, after paying the admission of US$2.50 at the inner Ngo-Mon Gate, through palaces, gardens, ruins under restoration, past breathtaking decorated gates and crumbling walls, what struck me was the modern Vietnamese attitude toward the Imperial City. No matter that not all Nguyen family members were fondly remembered – to say the least – this was still the shrine to 144 years of national ancestors and therefore sacred ground. Even the 1933 tennis court of the last Emperor, playboy Bao Dai is being restored. The descriptions – written in French, English and Vietnamese – for the extensively restored Dien Tho Palace complex is nearly reverential.
Sadly there isn’t an army of restoration workers on site. Despite UNESCO designation, the projects are vast, requiring research, meticulous craftsmanship and lots of money. Germany and Japan are actively contributing to several current projects. Maintenance alone is a daunting task – this is 2-1/2 square miles of monuments.
The 1968 Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War (locally known as the American War) inflicted severe damage on the Imperial City, yet there are no vitriolic nationalist slogans, just a sober plaque describing the skeletal remains of a palace building within the Forbidden Purple City (bottom left).
Yet there are always the reminders that this is Vietnam where the practical tasks of everyday life are as important in Confucian thought as the lofty actions of State. Laundry drying on the Imperial City’s walled moat? As long as it’s feng shui…
Have you ever wished you could live in a postcard? You can if you cruise the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay. Situated on Vietnam’s north east coast, it has been an important player in the nation’s history and economy for over a millennium. It doesn’t hurt being one of the most beautiful sites on the planet.
Hundreds of limestone island mountains have been sculpted by centuries of erosion. The bay itself opens to the Gulf of Tonkin, the port of Ha Phong and the vast Pacific. It has been an artery of wealth for Hanoi and north Vietnam, as well as the cultured pearl capital of the country. The bay, like so many expanses of water in Southeast Asia, contains floating villages. Unlike floating villages on lakes, Halong Bay’s are not as polluted or dangerous for residents, although the average family wage is less than US$800/year – owning your own floating house can run 20X that amount.
The main occupation is cultured pearl farming and it’s an extraordinary art. A thin slice of the oyster’s skin is dissected under microscopic glasses and transformed into “seeds” that are surgically inserted into the live oyster. Several seeds may be implanted in one oyster, but, after 3 to 7 years gestation – depending on the type and color – less than 20% will ever produce gem quality pearls. Packed in baskets suspended from bamboo floats, this important crop waits for the luxury world beyond.
Prior to the Indochina wars that ravaged Vietnam during the 20th century, Halong Bay’s limestone islands provided shelter for villages and isolated Confucian and Buddhist retreats. During the war they served as protection from air raids and today they are fascinating caves for everyone to explore. Several caves have been transformed into “tourist-friendly” sites complete with guides and dramatic multi-color theater lighting illuminating an otherworldly scene that takes on the look of an “otherworldly tourist attraction” – shapes of hanging feet, a large erection.. etc. (I keep on saying – the truth – that Southeast Asians are playful and NOT dour.) It’s fun to walk through the caves.
Halong Bay’s a year round destination but summer is its high season. March was still chilly and damp but added a mystical mist to the entire scene. There are islands that have summer beaches and there are a variety of ways to visit the bay. The most popular is by taking an overnight cruise on a small Chinese Junk-style ship carrying between 10 – 35 passengers. From the port of Halong City, the ships sail into the center of the bay – about one hour – and anchor. From there passengers are ferried to the floating villages, pearl farms, caves, kayaking through caves and to beaches. There are over 400 ships that ply the bay ranging from small day-trip boats to “luxury” cruise junks. I place the word “luxury” in quotes because it’s difficult to determine beforehand which ships fit that description. Our ship, the Hanoi Opera, booked through the highly recommended Explorer Tours, was a fine ship carrying 20+ passengers but whose beds were designed for ascetic monks – the futon mattress was perhaps 1.5 inches thick to be generous. Paying $US420/couple for 2 nights to sleep on a wooden pallet was very uncomfortable. We discovered that there were many other ships that offered a higher level of comfort at less cost. Having researched the options for a month before booking the cruise, and after extensive conversations with fellow travelers, I would not recommend booking ahead. With so many ships available for tours, the best options are: (1) stay overnight in Halong City and take a day excursion on the bay, or (2) stay overnight in Halong City and check out the overnight ships to see which ones offer real beds. A one-night cruise is sufficient and should run around US$150 – $165/couple, including meals.
The three hour bus trip from Hanoi to the Bay – included in the cruise fare – was equally interesting. Although not comfortable given the condition of Vietnamese roads, passing through rural countryside and old villages undergoing rapid middle-class changes was enlightening. Rice paddies with Water Buffalo pulling wooden plows are next to French/Vietnamese style “McMansions” of affluent Vietnamese. Anyone owning a house more than 9 feet wide is affluent since ancient real estate tax laws dictate high levies on any structure wider – although depth and height are excluded. Catholic churches towered over Confucian and Buddhist temples. Trash, dust and too much traffic for the narrow roads was typical. Nineteenth century farming and building techniques were side-by-side with 21st century office buildings, truck dealers and technical schools.
Of course, the bus does make a shopping stop at a stone carving studio. Vietnam has an abundance of both limestone and marble. Hand-made marble carvings, especially garden fountains and statues, in sizes that are quite large, are available and shipping can be arranged – don’t look for bargains, these are top-of-the-line. Silk embroidery – some of it quite fine – is an art that frequently employs the disabled and is widely available, as well as jewelry and women’s ready-to-wear clothing – as long as you’re a size 8 or less.
“Past error is no excuse for its own perpetuation.” Senator Robert F. Kennedy, 1968
There’s little visible evidence of Hanoi circa 1010 – the city was established by Chinese expanding southward on settlements along the Red River that had been there already for 2,000 years. Actually, there’s little evidence of Hanoi pre 1870’s. Confucian culture preserves the spirits of the ancestors, not their buildings. Even if decades of war and millions of tons of dropped bombs had not significantly damaged the city, ingrained capitalism would have dictated their presence superfluous. The drive from Hanoi’s dreary Noi Bai International Airport – 28 miles (45 km) from the city’s downtown – passes extensive rice paddies boardering high-rise office complexes, narrow mold-streaked French colonial-style town houses next to another BMW dealership before winding snake-like into the heart of Old Hanoi with it’s 21st century sensory overload.
“Charming” is a term to apply to Hanoi only if you believe Manhattan deserves the moniker as well. Frenetic is my description. The motor bike horns begin by 4:00 AM, followed by the publically broadcast music from the computer/TV store across the street starting at 8:00 AM, then the TV in the hotel’s breakfast room entertaining the owner’s young son with the Cartoon Network dubbed in Vietnamese. Outside is pandemonium if not prepared.
Hanoi is a city that would make Donald Trump proud. Everyone is an entrepreneur and quite aggressive in their selling methods whether it be a cyclo driver following you down the street because you really don’t want to walk (?), or stepping over and around another sidewalk café while saying “no” to the hundredth deep fried donut, peeling the hand of the seller off your arm because you really do not need another map of the city all the while being aware that you’re walking in the middle of the street, because there’s no sidewalk space, along with cars, motorbikes and bicycles. Everything is for sale and streets, not just in the Old City, are frequently dedicated to a product – silversmith, watches… The Hotel Ho Guom was located on the edge of the Old City and the French Quarter and most of the surrounding shops were computer and TV stores.
Street life is not attractive compared to Thailand and Laos. The city is dirty. In Thailand and Laos both the cities and countryside were virtually trash free and yet there was not an overabundance of trash cans. Residents and shop owners simply picked up after themselves. Not so in Hanoi. There is an air of freewheeling rampant capitalism with a “me-me” attitude. It is nearly impossible to simply stop on the side of the street when walking to take a photo without having to dodge a vehicle, a person, a pile of discarded greasy food or a hawker. Yet Hanoi is a rich city. It is Southeast Asia’s most expensive real estate, everyone is either working or eating (or both), Bentley, BMW and Mercedes cars share the streets with motor bikes, high rise buildings are going up and the lakes are beautiful – even if they’re still not havens of quiet.
It is not a tourist city, it’s for business. Evidence of the horrific wars that tore the country apart are nowhere to be seen except in the museums – none of which are worth seeing unless you’re really into war and politics. The most prominent statue to a political figure is the huge monument to Emperor Lý Thái Tổ(974-1028) who ended Chinese domination over Vietnam. One of the city’s largest structures is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph (1886). Over 15% of Vietnamese are Catholic and Saturday night Mass was packed.
The Temple of Learning, built in 1070, dedicated to Confucius, functioned for more than 700 years as Vietnam’s Imperial University educating the country’s nobles, royalty, mandarins and other elite. If after years of study and a month-long series of exams, a student graduated as a Mandarin their name was engraved on stone stele that sits on large stone turtles in the temple. Annually about 8 out of every 3,000 exam takers ever reached that loftiest of degrees. The temple consists of a series of five landscaped courtyards. The first two are primarily gardens including fanciful designs and topiary. The third one has a lotus pond and the stellae. The final courtyard holds the shrine to Confucius. The northern half of Vietnam has been Confucian for centuries. More a social and political philosophy based on ethics and behavior, and quite compatible with capitalism and central government, Confucian thought – although complex – does guide Vietnam today. Ancestor worship and offerings to the animistic spirits of nature by burning incense and leaving food and drink on alters, in trees and at monuments is as common in Vietnam as anywhere else in Southeast Asia.
Within the Old City are several privately owned houses many within the same family dating back several centuries and are open to the public. They give a glimpse of middle class merchant life that, in reality, still exists today. The front of the house was always the store, and directly above were the 2nd floor store rooms reached by a staircase. Behind the store is the residence dominated in front by the alter to the ancestors. At least two courtyards open the houses to outdoor light and rain water. Chinese architectural influence is paramount in these pre-19th century structures.
Most “tourist attractions” signal to me to “stay away,” but Hanoi’s Water Puppet Theater is unique and well worth the US$3.00 admission (for a front row seat). Started during ancient rice harvest festivals, the flooded rice paddies were transformed into magical puppet theaters. Puppets are a beloved form of entertainment throughout Asia, but these puppet masters control their elaborate characters from behind screens and actually under the water. Fire breathing dragons compete with dainty court dancers and palm tree climbing coconut collectors. A live orchestra in traditional dress playing on traditional instruments completes the experience as one of the best cultural venues in the city!
Cuisine is not Hanoi’s forte. There are a lot of places to eat and, as usual on this Earth, they’re mediocre. The finest restaurant in Hanoi is also the most fascinating. Koto, next to the Temple of Learning, is in an elegant, 3 story French art nouveau town house. Opening at 11:30 AM it is full within the hour. Founded 20 years ago by concerned Australians and Vietnamese, it is a culinary training school and refuge for disadvantaged/abused/orphaned young adults. If I had not known this in advance, I would have assumed it’s simply a superbly well trained staff serving creative dishes at moderate prices. It was the best meal I had in Hanoi. Cost for two was less than US$18.00
Unfortunately, many restaurants in Hanoi listed in guidebooks or on user reviewed travel sites were geared to tourists with Western taste (Australian beef burgers) and overpriced for the country. One important note of traveling in Vietnam is that it’s the least expensive of the Southeast Asian nations. A metered taxi (don’t travel any other way) is a couple of bucks anywhere within downtown, dinner for two with beer is under US$20, a first class hotel is overpriced if it’s rates are more than US$55-75, admission to any museum is a couple of bucks. I did have a very interesting, but not consistently well prepared, dinner at the top rated Highway 4, on a dark and dreary street north of the Water Puppet Theater. Deep fried crickets were fascinating – like eating feathery nuts, but beef flamed in foil was tough and other unexciting dishes were under seasoned. Although they advertise such exotic foods as Water Buffalo penis and fried scorpians, none of these were available. The Hotel Ho Guom, $55/double, was centrally located with an energetic and helpful staff – although the web site pics are better than reality. The room was comfortable and the breakfast provided a nice choice of traditional and Western foods.
Hanoi is not a comfortable city, and I’d suggest no more than a two day stay. Yet, for someone of my American generation it was an important visit. Barely avoiding the draft in the late 1960’s, brought up on ideas of “communist domination,” it was valuable to learn that it truly was all lies. If Vietnam is a “socialist” state, Wall Street’s full of socialist. The war was a nationalist independence movement to throw off Western domination so that they could resume the rampant capitalism Vietnam always enjoyed before the French imposed their colonial regime. Vietnam succeeded, and if, along with their Chinese cousins, they eventually dominate Southeast Asia it will be through capitalist investment not ideology.
“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 traveled in Vietnam in March 2010. 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 at best this might have been 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.