The Princess Mary box and the Christmas Truce

When I was between the ages of 15 and 17, my family lived in France. One day in the flea markets outside Paris, I found a little brass box that bore my initials, MM, as well as a woman’s head in profile.  The inscription above the head read, “Imperium Britannicum” and below that, “Christmas 1914.”  The names of Britain’s WWI allies were printed around the perimeter:  France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, Monte Negro, and Japan.

princess mary box

I bought the box – I don’t remember how much it cost – and have always kept little treasures inside.  Thanks to the internet, I discovered what it really is:  a Princess Mary Box, one of 400,000 gift boxes sent to British troops on the western front in time for Christmas 98 years ago.  The campaign to distribute the presents was led by Mary, the seventeen year old daughter of King George V.

***

In December, 1914, the first world war was four months old.  The German invasion of France had been stopped at the Marne that fall.  Both sides dug in for the winter, confident of a breakthrough in the spring that would end the war.  The first trenches were hastily dug, with no provision for drainage.  The winter was wet and cold, and the men spent their days knee deep in freezing water, with no way to get warm.

As Christmas neared, gifts began to arrive, which lifted the spirits of the troops.  According to firstworldwar.com, the men of the British Expeditionary Force got plum puddings and:

“Princess Mary boxes”; a metal case engraved with an outline of George V’s daughter and filled with chocolates and butterscotch, cigarettes and tobacco, a picture card of Princess Mary and a facsimile of George V’s greeting to the troops, “May God protect you and bring you safe home.” 

Princess Mary was 17 when she arranged for gift boxes for the troops.

The Germans got presents too, like meerschaum pipes, food, and small Christmas trees which they attached to the top of the trenches. A British Daily Telegraph correspondent reported that somehow the Germans slipped a chocolate cake into one section of the British lines, along with a request for a cease-fire that evening for a concert. The British agreed and sent gifts of tobacco in return.

That night, at 7:30, the German’s lit candles.  They raised their heads above the trenches and began to sing.  Later they called to the British to join in.  One Tommy yelled, “I’d rather die than sing in German.”  “It would kill us if you tried,” came the reply.

The British line stretched south from Ypres for 27 miles.  In some places, the trenches were only 30 yards apart.  Towns and fields and other reminders of civilian life had not yet been completely destroyed.  Every soldier stuck in the freezing mud longed for home and knew their foes did too.  The rain stopped on Christmas Eve.  The day was clear, and that night as they joined in Christmas carols, soldiers in ones and twos, then in groups, climbed out of the ground to greet each other in no man’s land.

British and German soldiers together, Dec. 25, 1914

In some places, the shooting never stopped, but in others the truce extended through Christmas day and beyond.  The men played soccer, traded uniform buttons and other souvenirs.  Barbers offered haircuts and shaves for free.  When the British high command, a safe 27 miles behind the lines, heard of the truce, they were outraged and issued stern orders forbidding fraternization.  Most field commanders on both sides ignored such orders.

Though in a few spots, things stayed quiet through New Year’s, in most places the truce ended when Christmas was over.  Captain J.C. Dunn, medical officer of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, recorded how the war started up again:

“At 8.30 [on Christmas night] I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with ‘Merry Christmas’ on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He [the Germans] put up a sheet with ‘Thank you’ on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.”

The story was squelched in the British papers until an account ran in the New York Times on December 31.  Word then spread around the world.  Nothing like it on that scale happened again.  Bombardments were ordered on future Christmas Eve’s to prevent it, and after the slaughter of 1916 and the introduction of poison gas, opposing troops grew more bitter toward each other.

I look at the Princess Mary Box and wonder about the soldier who opened it almost a century ago.  If the box turned up in a French flea market, I doubt that he made it home – many sent to the front in 1914 did not.  The brass of the box still shines.  It must have reflected lantern light in trenches and the flare of matches as the men lit up cigarettes sent from home.

princess mary detail

It’s nice to know how closely connected the box is with the Christmas truce, a moment in history that has always held a haunting fascination for me. Cynics claim the lull in fighting was used by both sides to spy out each other’s defenses.  I am not convinced.  People do not remember spying operations 100 years later, and the truce has never been forgotten.  As the men sang “Silent Night” in both languages, many in no man’s land must have truly experienced the peace of the holy day.

Firstworldwar.com concludes it’s account of the truce by saying:  “Perhaps this is the most important legacy of the Christmas Truce today.  In our age of uncertainty, it comforting to believe, regardless of the real reasoning and motives, that soldiers and officers told to hate, loathe and kill, could still lower their guns and extend the hand of goodwill, peace, love and Christmas cheer.” 

The text on this cross left near Ypres in 1999 reads, “1914 – The Khaki Chum’s Christmas Truce – 1999 – 85 Years – Lest We Forget.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild: A movie review

0125-beasts-of-the-southern-wild-2jpg-a41fc72827b8ef87

“Sometimes miraculous films come into being, made by people you’ve never heard of, starring unknown faces, blindsiding you with creative genius.” – Roger Ebert

I missed Beasts of the Southern Wild during its all too brief theatrical run last summer.  If you did too, I suggest you rent it.  Made on a low budget with a cast of first-time actors, notably the amazing Quvenzhané Wallis, who was only five when filming started, this movie is not like any other you’ve recently seen.  It is laced with joy while portraying  a group of have-nots on the cultural fringe as they struggle to hang on to their way of life.

Hushpuppy (Wallis) lives with her daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry), in The Bathtub, an island at sea level off New Orleans, barely protected by levees.  The Bathtub folk have nothing by the standards of “dry side” people.  They live by fishing and raising pigs and chickens.  They build homes in trees out of cast off materials and make boats out of pickup beds and empty metal drums.  They have moonshine, music, community, and the gift of celebration.

Hushpuppy talks to the animals and her mother, who is gone, and sometimes they reply.  She knows a storm is coming  Her schoolteacher tells the class about aurochs, huge prehistoric beasts.  “You got to learn to survive,” warns the teacher.  There’s a picture of ice caps in the classroom, and Hushpuppy is close enough to the world that she seems to hear them melting, seems to see the frozen aurochs stir.

southern-wild

The winds rise and the sky turns black.  The storm is never named, but we know it’s Katrina.  Salt water fills the bathtub and everything starts to die.

“I’m gonna make it right,” says Wink, but Hushpuppy sees that he’s sick.”  The aurochs are very close.  “No crying,” says Wink.  “You got to survive.”

Bathtub people look to Hushpuppy’s father as a natural leader, a role he tries to pass on to his daughter in his bluff and sometimes whisky-soaked way.  “Who da man?” he often demands.  “I’m the man,” Hushpuppy replies, but she’s also six years old.  What can she do against all the disasters taking shape in her mind as a herd of fearsome beasts?  If you can’t outrun an auroch, how do you stare it down?

Roger Ebert says, “Hushpuppy lives in desolation, and her inner resources are miraculous. She is so focused, so sure, so defiant and brave, that she is like a new generation put forward in desperate times by the human race.”

Everyone’s saying Quvenzhané Wallis is on the shortlist for a best actress nomination.  This year I can’t think of anyone more deserving.  Watch the movie and see what you think.

The Yule Lads: Icelandic Christmas folklore.

The Yule Lads

In most Christian countries, Christmas was slower to catch on than other major church holidays.  The clergy may have been wary of pagan solstice celebrations which happened at the same time of year and included serious revelry.  Some early Christmas festivities mimicked the custom.  They were banned in 17th century England, and American Puritans outlawed them too.

According to Brian Pilkington, author of The Yule Lads, Iceland was ahead of the curve. A 16th century law stated that “All disorderly and scandalous entertainment at Christmas and other times and Shrovetide revels are strongly forbidden on pain of serious punishment.”

Icelandic winters are long and dark, with fewer than five hours of daylight at this time of the year.  Imagination tends to fill the darkness with what we fear, and Pilkington’s book describes “the lads” that kept Icelandic children awake at night.  The gentlemen pictured on the cover are not our shopping mall Santas!

The matriarch of the clan was the ogress, Gryla, who loved to eat stewed children.  It couldn’t be just any kid though.  It had to be one who was “naughty, lazy, or rude.”  In one 13th century account, Gryla had 15 tails, and tied to each was a sack full of naughty children.  It was not “the most wonderful time of the year” if you were young!  The Icelandic word for icicle is “grylukerti” which means “Gryla’s candle.”

Gryla. CC-by-SA-2.5

Gryla had three husbands and 80 children, though legend now boils it down to 13 sons who visit the homes of children on successive nights from Dec. 12 – 25.  Time and the law have taken the edge off the Yule Lads, for a 1746 decree said “The foolish custom, which has been practiced here and there about the country, of scaring children with Yuletide lads or ghosts, shall be abolished.”  By the 19th century, the Lads had morphed from cannibals into rascals and petty thieves, who even began to leave gifts for good children who left their shoes on a window ledge.

The first to arrive was Stekkjarstaur, the “Sheep Worrier.”  He would visit the the sheep cot and try to suck milk from the ewes.  That doesn’t work in December and led author, Brian Pilkington to suggest that Sheep Worrier’s IQ is “somewhat less than three digits.”  These days  he heads for the fridge to get his milk.  If a child has been good, Stekkjarstaur leaves a sugary sweet.  Bad children get a potato.

Next comes Giljagaur, aka, “Gully Gawk” who travels through gullies and ravines, also in search of milk, but he looks for cow barns and inattentive milkmaids.  “Stubby” arrives the third night, as short as his name suggests.  He likes to raid the kitchen, as do the brothers that follow, “Spoon Licker,” “Pot Licker,” and “Bowl Licker.”  In their present forms all they do is mischief, but food thieves were no joke in earlier times.  For northern farming families, the time between Christmas and the spring thaw in April or May could be times of famine if food or fodder for livestock ran short.

The next lad to show up is Hurdaskellir, or “Door Slammer,” one of only two of Gryla’s sons who isn’t out to fill his belly.  Imagine loud bangs in the dead of night and you know how he gets his jollies.

And as if the sons of Gryla were not bad enough, children also had to contend with Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat, a huge feral creature who hunts children on Christmas Eve instead of mice. Like the lads, the cat discriminates in choosing his victims, eating only those who have not received a new item of clothing for Christmas. Pilkington says that “Until fairly recently in Iceland, all clothing came directly from sheep. The wool had to be washed, combed, and spun before it was painstakingly crafted into a garment. It was a long, arduous process.”  Fear of the Cat induced lazy children to do their part!

This is a fun book and a fine counterbalance to the usual TV holiday movies.  You can picture families gathered around the fire as the wind howls outside, thinking as we do when hearing a good ghost story, “This can’t be true…can it?”  Something within the listeners then and within us now loves to be scared, to confront monsters and vanquish them in imagination.  On that score, Gryla & Sons and the Yule Cat satisfy!

A click on the book cover at the top of this post will take you a site where you can order The Yule Lads.

Tales of the Elves: Icelandic Folktales for Children

Tales of the Elves cover

One day God decided to visit Adam and Eve.  They welcomed him and introduced  their children – all except the ones Eve had not finished bathing.  After all, you want your kids to be clean when the Supreme Being drops in.  God was aware of this and said, “What is hidden from me shall be hidden from men.”  Those children became the elves who live in the hills and mounds of Iceland.  They can see us but we can’t see them unless they wish it.

I know this because I read a magical book, Tales of the Elves, based on the Icelandic folktales of Jon Arnason, adapted by Anna Kristin Asbjornsdottir and illustrated by Florence Helga Thibault.  I found the book on our visit to Iceland, which I wrote about in the fall.

Interest in elves isn’t limited to children in Iceland.  One day, as we toured the countryside, our driver pointed to a spot in a wide valley where the highway curved around a pair of volcanic rocks.  The stones were only 8′ – 10′ tall, nothing modern earth movers couldn’t remove.  That was the intention of the highway crew.  The problem was, the bulldozers broke down or stalled every time they  approached the twin rocks.  Every time.  Locals explained that the stones marked the entrance to an underground elven settlement.  The equipment worked perfectly after the construction crew decided to route the highway around the stones.

If this reminds you of Irish fairies, there’s good reason.  Genetic testing has proven that many Icelanders, especially the women, came from Ireland, specifically, the viking settlements there.  The stories themselves teach us similar lessons in coexisting with “the hidden ones.”

“Midwife to the elves” shows how the elven folk can give the gift of the sight and take it away again.  “Elf Wind” demonstrates the courage and cunning required to set things right if you do something foolish, like cut the grass on an elven mound.  “Payment for Milk” is about the boons the elves can grant if you treat them with kindness and goodwill.

I’d been looking forward to writing this review since I found Tales of the Elves, but unfortunately I couldn’t find any venue where interested readers can find the book.  Not on Amazon US or UK.  Not on bookfinders.com or ebay.  I couldn’t find ordering information on the publisher’s website.  I posted a request for information on the illustrator’s Facebook page, and I’ll pass along anything I discover.  Meanwhile, here is the information – if you love folklore and fine illustration of fantasy themes, it’s worth keeping an eye open for this book.

Anna Kristin Asbjornsdottir (adaptation), Florence Helga Thibault (illustration), Victoria Cribb (trans), Tales of the Elves, Bjartur publishing, Reykjavik, 2012

ISBN:  978-9979-788-80-5

Please post any information you may discover.

All quiet on the holiday front

The chief of security at one of the largest area malls reported that this year’s Black Friday was the smoothest in 13 years.  He didn’t speculate on why that was true, so here’s a poll.  Pick whichever explanation(s) seem most plausible:

  1. The population has grown more civil.
  2. More people are shopping online.
  3. After all that’s happened this year, including the election, we’re too numb to respond to the usual holiday trappings.

Yesterday, I thanked the waitress at a local waffle place for the lack of “holiday” music.  “I know,” she said.  “Isn’t it great?  I’m hoping management keeps it up.”

I distinguish between Christmas music, which I enjoy at this time of year, and Holiday music.

People reading this blog in other countries may not be clear on the distinction.  Because of our nation’s diversity, in the public sphere, both at work and in stores, we say “Happy Holiday’s” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  The intent is not to offend people of other faiths.  The result is largely to trivialize the whole thing.  If you’ve ever gotten a song like “Little Saint Nick,” or “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” stuck in your mind, you know what I mean.

For helping spark the trend toward silence or simply generic music in stores, I present my 2012 Corporate Hero award to Shoppers Drug Mart, a popular Canadian pharmacy chain.  They started playing Holiday music the day after Halloween, but received so many complaints that they pulled the plug “until further notice.”

One comment on their Facebook page read, “Starting this music so early takes the sacredness and meaning out of what should be such a beautiful season.”  That sums up “the Holidays” in their entirety.

Luke’s gospel tells us that after the shepherds saw the baby Jesus, they ran off to Bethlehem to tell everyone, “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”  Lk 2:19.

Pondering things in our heart is how an event becomes an experience.  It’s how we come to appreciate things, even simple acts like buying a gift or having waffles with a friend.

I never begrudge our merchants the chance to make a living at this time of year, and I appreciate them even more for pulling the plug on noxious music so I can treasure more of these things in my heart.

Twinkies, Part Deux

My previous article, which indulged in bit of nostalgia about grade school lunches, missed much of the actual drama that put Hostess, the maker of Twinkies, Ho-Ho’s, and Ding Dongs, on the ropes.

It isn’t quite over .  A USA Today article by Kevin McCoy reports that Hostess management and the baker’s union are meeting for mediation today, delaying the company’s second bankruptcy filing in less than a decade  http://usat.ly/TU81SA.

The maker of popular snack foods has a billion dollars in debt, which it blames on an “inflated cost structure,” largely as a result of labor contracts.  The union contends the problem is years of mismanagement.  An outside financial analyst found that problems included, “years of underinvestment in products, facilities and equipment, long-term neglect of once-dominant brands and hollowing-out of a distribution system that once provided a competitive advantage,”

Bruce Maiman, a local contributor to the Sacramento Bee, interviewed workers striking at the local Hostess bakery who say their hourly wage and pensions are lower than other bakers like Oroweat and Sara Lee  http://www.sacbee.com/2012/11/20/4998328/blame-workers-unions-or-the-executives.html.  Maiman lists a string of gaffes by a management led by six different CEO’s in ten years.

Local workers claim that rather than replacing outdated equipment, money was recently spent to replace windows and paint the lunchroom, locker room, and floors.  “They want it to look pretty so they can sell it,” says the head of the local baker’s union.

Selling assets may well be the outcome.  US Bankruptcy Trustee, Tracy Hope Davis, joined the union in arguing against management’s current shutdown plans – which among other things, would grant them large bonuses.  Davis favors Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which would liquidate assets according to US Bankruptcy Code priorities.

In other words, Twinkies may survive, so we’re better off waiting before spending $5,000, the going rate for a Twinkie on eBay.  This, says Bruce Maiman, just goes to show that “as long as human beings exist, the planet will never run out of Twinkies or nitwits.”   

A life lived for others

This has been a season of losses.  A friend recently died of something that should not have been fatal, and after the special treatments stopped working, we had to let go of our dog, Holly, who I wrote about in June.  That’s partly what motivated my recent reflections on what matters most in our lives.  The question comes up as well in the experience of a great friend and teacher who recovered from a serious illness this year.

Lama Kunga Thartse Rinpoche was born in Tibet in 1935.  At the age of eight, he entered Ngor monastery where he was ordained as a monk at 16.  In 1972, Rinpoche emigrated to the United States and later founded Ewam Choden Tibetan Buddhist Center in Kensington, CA (see the link on my blogroll).

Early this year, he was diagnosed with lymphoma.  He underwent chemotherapy while his nearby friends and students saw to his diet and daily needs.  Friends the world over offered prayers and traditional healing ceremonies.  His cancer is now in remission and he just returned to a full teaching schedule seeming more vigorus than ever.

Lama Kunga Thartse Rinpoche

A week ago Sunday, I joined some of Lama Kunga’s students and friends in the bay area to celebrate his birthday and his return to health.  This is a man who had lots of help in his time of need because he lives his life as everyone’s friend.  In Buddhism, compassion for all sentient beings is the most important attribute we can cultivate.  The Dalai Lama has said, “We can live without religion and meditation, but we cannot survive without human affection.”

Buddha gave different teachings for different kinds of practitioners.  The first was Hinayana, the “lesser vehicle,” which aims at enlightenment to end suffering for the individual.  Of far greater importance today is Mahayana, the “greater vehicle,” where the goal is to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.  People are naturally drawn to those who fully embody such an ideal.

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama

Though not nearly as well known as the Dalai Lama, Lama Kunga also has the magnetic personality of one who sincerely tries to benefit all other beings.  I hadn’t seen him in almost a year, but at his birthday party, we fell into conversation as if it had been just a week.  We talked about things like Tibetan ways of cooking  potatoes, but I found myself as uplifted as I have been after hearing him speak about subtle points of philosophy.

Some instructors teach with their whole being and not just their words, yet remain very human too.  Lama Kunga is an avid golfer.  In a 2002 interview in Golf Digest he said, “I would like to be reincarnated as a better golfer someday.”  One of his golfing buddies reports that he sometimes uses “colorful sounding phrases in Tibetan” on the course.

When I was a junior in high school, one of my teachers said, “I really think life is only satisfying when we live for something greater than ourselves.”  In the decades since then, the people I’ve most admired lived that ideal.  “Rinpoche” is an honorific that means “precious one,” a title that friends of Lama Kunga know he richly deserves.

Rosebud

It couldn’t be a finer autumn day in north-central California.  Going to vote this morning, in the golden-tinged sunlight, it was easy to bask in the hope of new beginnings, in the hope that difficult times will call forth a renewed vision and strength of purpose in those we elect.  Perhaps “ordinary” men and women will prove to be extra-ordinary in our times as they have done in the past.

Yet this week I’ve been thinking of Citizen Kane, for I fear that many who run for political office share the motivation of Charles Foster Kane, in what some have called the greatest American movie ever made.  Kane had a hole in his heart that no amount of money, or women, or power, or things could fill.

After his death, one of his friends told a reporter, “All he ever wanted in life was love.  That’s Charlie’s story, how he lost it.  You see, he never had any to give.”

How could he?  When he was a boy, his mother essentially sold him into public life for a comfortable yearly stipend.  The last word on Kane’s dying lips was “Rosebud,” the name of his boyhood sled, which represented the dream of freedom and warmth he could never force the world to yield up.

I think we have to know something about our own Rosebud, the hole in our own hearts, to keep our lives from careening out of control.  If we haven’t gone a few rounds with our private angels and demons, we might even enter politics for all the wrong reasons!

Joseph Campbell phrased it in terms of the Grail Quest.  In youth we may gain a vision or intimation of a Great Good, beyond the power of youth to bear.  We spend our lives on the trail of this Boon which we have seen and lost.  Something like that appears to happen to nations when the youthful vision gets lost, for the old stories make clear that when the Grail is hidden, the land becomes barren.

It’s a good day to pray for our new leaders, whoever they turn out to be, for “us and them” is just a destructive illusion; no matter what we may wish, we are all in this together.