"Are you ready for Christmas?"
I'm not sure why that inane question from the bag boy at the grocery store struck me as so... well, inane yesterday, but it did. He'd clearly been taught to make small talk with the customers. Just seconds before he asked, the cashier had asked me the same thing. My reply to her was a blank look, and "Oh, I guess I should start, huh?" It was 11 a.m. on Christmas Eve...
I'm still trying to figure out what it is they expected me to say. "Oh yes! I've racked up my credit cards to within an inch of their lives, bought presents for everyone I've ever met and Aunt Tithington (whom I really can't stand, but don't dare not buy for - you know how it is,) and I've whirled myself into a state of exhaustion, embarrassment and fatness with parties, preparations, alcohol, cookies and fudge!"
What if I'd said no? Would they offer to go run my extra errands for me, or come clean my kitchen, so that same Aunt Tithington wouldn't sniff at my lack of housekeeping skills?
It's not easy being a non-Christian in a world and time where the words out of everyone's mouths demand that you observe their religious rituals. Every non-Christian out there must find their own way to cope with it, whether by keeping our mouths shut, protesting the intrusion, going along to get along, pre-empting the season to celebrate life-in-the-dead-of-winter in our own way, or just ignoring it all together.
But one way or another, "Life-in-the-dead-of-winter", aka "Christmas" speaks to everyone, and we must each interpret it in our own way, in whichever way we can find peace, and this is mine.
The true meaning of Christmas has nothing to do with newborn-king-babies, or popes, or queenly messages, or god-worship, or yule logs, or Santa Claus, tinsel and reindeer, or any of the other false trappings of men and their religion. The true meaning of Christmas has to do with humanity reasserting itself in the face of overwhelming obstacles. (Thanks for the name though, Christianity, it's come in handy over the years. Oh - and thanks to pagans for the yule log thing, and mistletoe, and Germany for the Christmas tree, etc., etc.)
When a single soldier can stand down, when he does so sincerely, and for no other reason than he needs a rest from the horrors of war and to bury his dead, when he and his fellows and their enemies can stop thinking of country, and land, or oil, or despots, or whatever it is that soldiers in war think about, when he can reach his hand across the trenches and exchange buttons and songs and burial details and their basic shared humanity, then that's when the true meaning of Christmas is achieved.
Am I ready for Christmas? You bet.
I'm always ready for peace on earth. Even if it only lasts a day.
Bullets & Billets by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, 1916
Chapter 8 - Christmas Eve--A lull in hate--Briton cum Boche
... On Christmas morning I awoke very early, and emerged from my dug-out into the trench. It was a perfect day. A beautiful, cloudless blue sky. The ground hard and white, fading off towards the wood in a thin low-lying mist. It was such a day as is invariably depicted by artists on Christmas cards--the ideal Christmas Day of fiction.
"Fancy all this hate, war, and discomfort on a day like this!" I thought to myself. The whole spirit of Christmas seemed to be there, so much so that I remember thinking, "This indescribable something in the air, this Peace and Goodwill feeling, surely will have some effect on the situation here to-day!" And I wasn't far wrong; it did around us, anyway, and I have always been so glad to think of my luck in, firstly, being actually in the trenches on Christmas Day, and, secondly, being on the spot where quite a unique little episode took place.
Everything looked merry and bright that morning--the discomforts seemed to be less, somehow; they seemed to have epitomized themselves in intense, frosty cold. It was just the sort of day for Peace to be declared. It would have made such a good finale. I should like to have suddenly heard an immense siren blowing. Everybody to stop and say, "What was that?" Siren blowing again: appearance of a small figure running across the frozen mud waving something. He gets closer--a telegraph boy with a wire! He hands it to me. With trembling fingers I open it: "War off, return home.--George, R.I." Cheers! But no, it was a nice, fine day, that was all.
...in less time than it takes to tell, half a dozen or so of each of the belligerents were outside their trenches and were advancing towards each other in no-man's land.
A strange sight, truly!
I clambered up and over our parapet, and moved out across the field to look. Clad in a muddy suit of khaki and wearing a sheepskin coat and Balaclava helmet, I joined the throng about half-way across to the German trenches.
It all felt most curious: here were these sausage-eating wretches, who had elected to start this infernal European fracas, and in so doing had brought us all into the same muddy pickle as themselves.
This was my first real sight of them at close quarters. Here they were--the actual, practical soldiers of the German army. There was not an atom of hate on either side that day; and yet, on our side, not for a moment was the will to war and the will to beat them relaxed. It was just like the interval between the rounds in a friendly boxing match.
... Suddenly, one of the Boches ran back to his trench and presently reappeared with a large camera. I posed in a mixed group for several photographs, and have ever since wished I had fixed up some arrangement for getting a copy. No doubt framed editions of this photograph are reposing on some Hun mantelpieces, showing clearly and unmistakably to admiring strafers how a group of perfidious English surrendered unconditionally on Christmas Day to the brave Deutschers.
Slowly the meeting began to disperse; a sort of feeling that the authorities on both sides were not very enthusiastic about this fraternizing seemed to creep across the gathering. We parted, but there was a distinct and friendly understanding that Christmas Day would be left to finish in tranquillity. The last I saw of this little affair was a vision of one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.
More about Bruce Bairnsfather, WWI Cartoonist & Author
Written in the trenches by Private Frederick W. Heath
Originally published in the North Mail, Friday January 9th 1915
The night closed in early - the ghostly shadows that haunt the trenches came to keep us company as we stood to arms. Under a pale moon, one could just see the grave-like rise of ground which marked the German trenches two hundred yards away. Fires in the English lines had died down, and only the squelch of the sodden boots in the slushy mud, the whispered orders of the officers and the NCOs, and the moan of the wind broke the silence of the night. The soldiers' Christmas Eve had come at last, and it was hardly the time or place to feel grateful for it....
... Came the dawn, pencilling the sky with grey and pink. Under the early light we saw our foes moving recklessly about on top of their trenches. Here, indeed, was courage; no seeking the security of the shelter but a brazen invitation to us to shoot and kill with deadly certainty. But did we shoot? Not likely! We stood up ourselves and called benisons on the Germans. Then came the invitation to fall out of the trenches and meet half way.
Still cautious we hung back. Not so the others. They ran forward in little groups, with hands held up above their heads, asking us to do the same. Not for long could such an appeal be resisted - beside, was not the courage up to now all on one side? Jumping up onto the parapet, a few of us advanced to meet the on-coming Germans. Out went the hands and tightened in the grip of friendship. Christmas had made the bitterest foes friends...
(This work is out of copyright. Transcription credit: Marian Robson)
The Christmas Truce
The Christmas Truce - Wikipedia entry