Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Merry Trucemas!

Yes, already there is an update to the Trucemas story.

As you may remember, Trucemas is a holiday proposed by a nonreligious friend of mine who is also a military historian. He may not care about Santa, but he’s impressed by anything that could bring peace, music, stillness to the notoriously bloodsoaked Western Front in World War I. He started the idea last year; this year it may receive a little extra impetus because we recently lost one of the few who were there to participate.

The last known surviving allied veteran of the Christmas Truce that saw German and British soldiers shake hands between the trenches in World War One died Monday at 109, his parish priest said.

Alfred Anderson was the oldest man in Scotland and the last known surviving Scottish veteran of the war.

"I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence," he was quoted as saying in the Observer newspaper last year, describing the day-long Christmas Truce of 1914, which began spontaneously when German soldiers sang carols in the trenches, and British soldiers responded in English.

"All I'd heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machinegun fire and distant German voices. But there was a dead silence that morning across the land as far as you could see.

"We shouted 'Merry Christmas' even though nobody felt merry. The silence ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again."

Troops in the trenches swapped cigarettes, uniform buttons and addresses and even played football in one of the most extraordinary episodes of the war.

Parish priest Neil Gardner of Anderson's Alyth Parish Church in Scotland said he had died in his sleep and was survived by a large family, including 18 great grandchildren and two great great grandchildren.

"He was a wonderful old man: he was gracious, gentle, he had a great sense of humor and a fine sense of wisdom from his experience spanning three centuries," said Gardner, who also served as chaplain to Anderson's regiment, the Black Watch.

Anderson also served briefly as a member of the household staff of Queen Elizabeth's uncle, Fergus Bowes-Lyon.

With Anderson's death, fewer than 10 British veterans of the war remain alive, of whom only three or four were veterans of trench warfare on the Western Front.

Attention has turned to the last survivors in recent weeks, with filmmakers bringing out documentaries in time for this month's Armistice Day holiday, marking the day the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918.

To me, Trucemas is one of the shining examples of the value of recognizing other people as fellow human beings. For my friend, it’s a celebration of peace amidst war. For everyone, it can be a way to strip off the aggregation of tinsel, family demands, cultural baggage, and personal expectations that can make the holidays a burden. I freely admit to giving in to some of those expectation—like the whole question of snow at Christmas, which has everything to do with my childhood in a cold place and nothing to do with the birth of the incarnated Lord.

(Did you know they actually import snow here? You think I’m kidding? The organizers of Winter Festivals rent a snow-making machine, and parents bring their children to gawp at the cold white stuff. There are also snow parks (or as the State of California refers to them, Sno Parks) where you can go for cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and making snow angels—all conveniently located near a parking lot and Portapotty. Snow is not just weather you can shovel; it’s a feature attraction, like the Pirates of the Carribean at Disneyland.)

For me the religious holiday is Christmas, and the beauty of the Incarnation shines amid the long winter nights. But the secular holiday, the one we all can share, whatever our religious beliefs, is Trucemas: season of goodwill, a time to pause and be kind to others, a time to remember the holidays of your childhood without necessarily attempting to duplicate them.

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