Sunday 25 December 2011

The day that Christmas stopped the killing.

Thanks to Allan Cavanagh for the perfect illustration.

British Expeditionary Force,
Friday December 25th, 1914.


My Dear Mater,
This will be the most memorable Christmas I’ve ever spent or likely to spend: since about tea time yesterday I don’t think there’s been a shot fired on either side up to now. Last night turned a very clear frost moonlight night, so soon after dusk we had some decent fires going and had a few carols and songs. The Germans commenced by placing lights all along the edge of their trenches and coming over to us - wishing us a happy Christmas etc ... Some of our chaps went over to their lines. I think they’ve all come back, bar one from ‘E’ Company. They no doubt kept him as a souvenir.
There must be something in the spirit of Christmas as today we are all on top of our trenches running about. ... Just before dinner I had the pleasure of shaking hands with several Germans ... I exchanged one of my balaclavas for a hat. I’ve also got a button off one of their tunics. We also exchanged smokes etc. and had a decent chat. They say they won’t fire tomorrow if we don’t so I suppose we shall get a bit of a holiday - perhaps ... We can hardly believe that we’ve been firing at them ... it all seems so strange. With much love from Boy."

Strange indeed, how wonderful is the human spirit. We humans have hearts the size of harvest moons. Given the choice of killing indiscriminately or having a meal with friends, the vast majority of us lay down our guns and pick up our knives and forks.  
I always find the Christmas Day truce of 1914 exceptionally moving, as for once, a religious festival was used to encourage exactly what it stood for.
As an atheist of Jewish stock, I have always loved the Nativity story. Evidently God was showing in the strongest possible way that social status meant absolutely nothing; that true power lay in the heart, mind and spirit.

All that matters is to be a loving human being; to shake hands with your enemy, love your neighbour and turn the other cheek. Christian ethics are an admirable and glorious collection, never better illustrated than by those good men who lifted themselves clean out of their hellish muddy disease-ridden trenches and played a little footie with the lads from the other side.
Christmas as a child was a big affair in my Jewish home. My parents felt it was important for us all to feel a part of the country that had taken us in, and so, in our own way, we assimilated the English culture of Christmas and left out the religion.
We had a tree, which is a Pagan tradition anyway, and we had presents and decorations. Indeed, on Christmas morning my Dad would crack open a bottle of champagne and declare ‘Happy Christmas!’, and none of us felt any less Jewish. 
Didn’t we still light the Menorah candles and celebrate Hannukah? 
Didn’t we eat hot salt beef sandwiches with sweet and sour cucumbers on Christmas Eve night, feeling completely Jewish and comfortable within ourselves?
All wisdom and worthy religious creed is based around acceptance (rather then tolerance, even though many still fail to see the vital difference), but even at this time of year, when true Christians are supposed to be celebrating the arrival of peace on Earth in the shape of their Saviour’s birth, there is begrudgery and prejudice aplenty.
Even though I cannot stand the censorial excesses and puritan overtones of Political Correctness, I’m going to risk being accused of just that when I say that, unlike lots of ye Irish folk, I actually like the “Happy Holidays!” thing.
Many of you believe that maniacal liberals demand the saying of “Happy Holidays!” so as to avoid offending non-Christian members of society, but they are wrong. No Irish Muslim, Sikh or Jew will be offended by one Christian saying “Happy Christmas!” to another, but there are other festivals that occur at this time of year in each religion. 
No minority immigrant is going to sit around and wait for an Irish Catholic to wish them a Happy Hannukah or Diwali, so why not cover all the religious bases, spread the love a little and keep everybody happy?
It seems absurd to me that people should get protective over their own religious festivals to the detriment of others. It feels a little like grown-ups who never learned to share their toys as children.
So no, “Happy Holidays!” does not preclude you celebrating your festival: it merely includes all of us who might be celebrating ours. I have never felt in any way offended by the sight of somebody gaining wisdom or comfort from their personal religious faith, but I do feel offended when I read in Irish newspaper pages “...well tough luck, why should we worry about offending anybody in this our country...?”
Why? I’ll tell you why! Forgive this atheist Jew for preaching Christianity, but you should worry simply and purely because it is un-Christian to think that way. I have lived in ‘your’ country for decades. I love Ireland and the Irish, and I even pay my taxes. 
At what point does this country become my country too? Clearly, as far as some of you are concerned, never, and once again I recall the words that my Dad used to say, when I was but a little boy.
“We are just visitors in this country.” he told me, “One day we may have to move on.”
How dare any of us become angry over such trifling matters, when we think of the bravery, love, compassion and ultimate sacrifice made by the lad who wrote that letter back in the trenches? 
A victim of a pointless and disgusting war, he and his equals on both sides found the true spirit of Christmas and made peace.

So please, as you celebrate this most important of feasts, give thanks to your God for all that you have, and try to love the fact that we are all so beautifully different.






H said...

Thanks for the stories Charlie, season's greetings from Canada...

Charlie Adley said...

Glad you enjoyed them Hiagin - new material arriving soon! Hope all is good in the mountains! Happy New Year to you all!