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The ghost of Christmas truces past

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This week, perhaps in a subconscious nod to the solstice, I started reading Adam Gopnik's Winter (Anansi, 2011), the print version of his Massey Lectures delivered earlier this year.

In the section examining the history of Christmas, there is a wonderful passage on the "Christmas Truce" of 1914:

"On the first Christmas of 1914, on impulse and in a totally self-organized way, the German and British troops along the Western Front chose to celebrate Christmas by ceasing to fight, trading family photographs, playing games, and sharing what good cheer they could find. It was a kind of quiet mutiny rising out of what had become a common Christmas culture throughout Europe -- a popular movement on the part of the men, and greatly discouraged by the officers. It was completely out of order, it was completely illegitimate -- and it was nearly universal on the Western Front...

In every subsequent year of the war the general of both sides made certain that there would never be a renewal of the Christmas truce. They knew all too well what the truce meant. However silly or even sordid the commercial rites of the ever-more-secular Christmas had been in the soldiers' early lives, it still represented values -- of community, family, renewal -- that were directly opposed to the murderous practice of mass warfare and to the mad nationalism that had driven Western civilization to suicide." (p. 122-123)

Speaking of nationalism and warfare... The Harper government has consistently sought to inject their vision of Canadian militarism into major sporting and cultural events. They have also poured money into telling Canada's military history. Far from neutral commemorations, this government chooses to emphasize aspects and interpretations of history that serve their present-day ideological purposes.

For example, in 2007, Harper took the opportunity of the 90th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge to "draw a direct line between Canadian soldiers dying in Afghanistan and the sacrifices of Canadians" in World War I.

The process of tailoring history to suit the needs of the present is often more subtle, and one way it works is by omission. So, in Harper's Canada, there has been precious little official recognition of the Christmas Truce. This is a shame, especially since last year the discovery of a Canadian soldier's letter seemed to reveal that the holiday fraternizing between troops from opposing trenches was, in fact, renewed after 1914.

On December 30, 1916, 23-year-old Pte. Ronald MacKinnon wrote a letter home to his sister:

"I had quite a good Xmas considering I was in the front line. Xmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. . . . We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars."

One leading European academic called this letter a "fantastic find" that proved the Christmas Truce phenomenon did not end in 1914 (despite the best efforts of both sides' officers).

Those Christmases were rare days in the years-long slaughter that was World War I. Less than four months after that Christmas Truce of 1916, young Ronald MacKinnon lay dead at Vimy Ridge. It seems to me that, if indeed we really want to honour the millions killed in WWI and other senseless wars, his last Christmas is worth remembering and celebrating.

This year, some U.S. peace activists are petitioning Obama to declare a Christmas ceasefire in Afghanistan (you can sign here). Unfortunately, our world is not A Christmas Carol, and the Harpers and Obamas of the world will not be moved to have a change of heart, even after a reminder visit from the Ghost of Christmas Truces Past. In the real world, we can't count on the benevolence or generosity of the Scrooges; we can only work to remove them from power and replace their system with something better.

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