Saturday, December 22, 2012

Heilige Nacht, Holy Night - A Christmas Flash

1914 Christmas Truce. German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment with British soldiers of Royal Warwickshire Regiment in No Man's Land. Photo by UK Govt. now in public domain.
HMSO has declared that the expiry of Crown Copyrights applies worldwide.

As we were unpacking the decorations for our first Christmas together, Tim picked a blue cylinder out of the box and proferred it with raised eyebrows.

"Really? A decorated gun shell for Christmas? Does Stuttgart have some meaning I'm not aware of?"

I cradled the object in my hand. "Yes, it does. My great-grandfather treasured this; he said it was the one gift he'd gotten that held the true meaning of Christmas. There's a story behind it. Let me show you what he wrote at the Home before he died."

We'd been in the trenches for three months. You can't imagine the sort of cold that sinks into your bones when you're living in the mud, exposed for days and nights on end. And the shelling! It was enough to drive you right round the bend sometimes. It was early on, and we still talked about the war as though it would end in a matter of months.

For some of us, it was our first time away from home. We were men, fighting a war, and we were boys, missing our families and the comforts of a warm fire and a Christmas tree. While we saved bits of paper and labels from tins to make chains, and scavenged branches to erect sad little trees on the parapets - this was before the land had been shelled into complete barrenness - I also thought about those poor blokes lying dead a few hundred feet away.

We had not been forgotten, of course; many received packages from family, as well as Princess Mary boxes* with a greeting from King George V. 'May God protect you and bring you safe home.' It's a bit of a paradox, I suppose, that those reminders brought both happiness and sorrow, as they made 'home' seem a place imagined in a long ago life.

That Christmas Eve we shared food and token gifts amongst ourselves, and were just posting the new watch when a familiar tune floated through the air. We were, you see, so close to the enemy trenches that we could hear each other quite well in the icy air. The melody was Oh Christmas Tree, although the words were in German; my friend Joe took up the tune immediately, and before long we were all singing together. The Germans began to sing more loudly, and before long our side was belting it out in a sort of good-natured competition. When the song ended, there was shouting from both sides; not the bloodcurdling yells of 'going over the top', but cries of guten nacht, hello, Merry Christmas, and some ribbing among the men about their respective musical talents.

Eventually I fell asleep, and was roused at 4 to stand watch. There was a lot of movement over in the enemy trenches, and to my surprise a figure slowly materialized on a far parapet. A German soldier was holding up some sort of stick with a cloth attached. 

'You not shooting. We not shooting', he called. Another figure appeared next to him. Slowly, they began to walk toward the No Man's Land which was between us.

Joe was awake as well, and I pointed at the Germans. 'You think it's a trap?'

He booted his chum Lionel awake. "Hey, what do make of this?"

Lionel peered over the top as well. "Hell, they're probably just as cold, lonely and miserable as we are. I'll slip out and you two keep an eye peeled." And with that, Lionel slithered out, first lying there, then rising to his knees with his hands in the air. 'Guten tag! Guten tag! Gesundheit!'

So we approached each other, as word spread and more men on both sides left the relative safety of the trenches for the wide open land between. We called to each other, in our own languages, in the broken bits that we knew of the other's, and in the universal signs of smiles and outstretched, weaponless hands. We met, not as soldiers but as men, brothers for a short time engaged in that most sacred yet bitter task, which no one should have to perform on Christmas Eve.

We buried our dead.

The ground was frozen like iron, and though we struggled and swore the burial was also done with humility and tenderness. Though we could have used the boots and overcoats, there were none who saw fit to take them. We extracted from their pockets the papers and letters, photos and mementos from those they'd left behind. I saw one German soldier holding a picture in his hand; and he showed it to me, his eyes unabashedly wet. 'Kind'. He reached into his own pocket and produced a similar photo; the children bore a remarkable resemblance. 

On an impulse, I produced a tin with a few cigarettes in it. He opened it and removed one, then handed it back. 'No, for you,' I answered, gesturing that he should take the entire thing. Somehow, I wanted to give a gift, a real gift, springing from nothing but goodwill. I wanted it to feel like Christmas. With a smile, he accepted it and rummaged around. 'You,' he said as he produced a small painted gun shell. He flipped up the top - it had been made into a lighter - and the flame danced in the night. 'You,' he said again, placing it in my hand and closing my fingers on it.

Both sides were waking and stirring as first light broke on the horizon. The strains of Silent Night/Stille Nacht floated gently over the battlefield. Heilige Nacht/Holy Night. 

Never has the phrase 'Peace on earth, goodwill to men', meant more than in the midst of a terrible war when men sent to hate and kill reached out to each other in peace and friendship.

Together, Tim and I used that gift from long ago to light the candles on the table.

Merry Christmas.

* "Princess Mary boxes" were metal boxes engraved with an outline of Princess Mary and filled with chocolates and candies, cigarettes, a picture of Princess Mary and George V's greeting to the troops.

While this is a fictional story, there are many accounts of the WW1 Christmas truce of 1914 which occurred spontaneously at various points on the front lines.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Invisible Quilt - An Old Post

During this holiday season, there are many who are facing pain, grief, and loneliness. So I have chosen to re-post Invisible Quilt, a piece which was written a few months  ago for a close friend in time of need. Happy Christmas to all who have been blessed, and I wish peace, strength and healing for those who need it.

I have a gift for you, my friend, one which I hope will remain with you always.  Something that will keep you warm during the cold dark days, though the corners may grow threadbare and the down become thin from hugging it so much.

It is made from squares of memory whose half-forgotten patterns come alive the more you remember;  familiar patterns of joy and sorrow, vestiges of old spills, geometric shards of dreams and laughter.  The delicate, even stitches of time hold it together, and though many may eventually pull free there is nothing which will make it completely unravel.

You cannot see it but I hope that you can feel it;  the invisible quilt of love and friendship wrapping itself around you.

May it warm and protect both you, and yours, forever.

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Monday, December 10, 2012

Cheers, Cavanaugh Blogfest

Welcome to the “Cheers, Cavanaugh BlogFest.” Many of you know Alex Cavanaugh as author, blogger, co-host of the A to Z challenge, and tireless promoter of fellow writers and bloggers. But there's a lot you don't know about him. Hence the blogfest; not only to recognize Alex's special spot within the community, but to resolve the burning questions surrounding his mysterious identity. While I seldom do blog tours or promos anymore, Alex was one of my first followers and has been a faithful reader. In keeping with my policy of biting the hand that feeds me, here is my entry for the Blogfest.

In +/- 20 words, what does Alex look like?
Alex looks like a cross between Jon Bon Jovi and Leonard from Big Bang Theory. Picture it, I dare you!

In +/- 20 words, who could play Alex in a documentary? (Living or dead.)
The Invisible Man

In +/- 20 words, who does Alex remind you of?
My 9th grade science teacher, also into movies, sci-fi. He used to spin the planetarium star projector to make us feel sick - for fun! Always willing to tutor a struggling student.

In +/- 100 words, (excluding the title) write flash fiction using all these prompts:


Alex Is A Shore Bet!

I always wondered why no one knew what the famous Alex Cavanaugh looked like. But then I saw this contest, Googled a few things, and was amazed at the answer! Alex is apparently the head of IWSG which I found out is the International Wader Study Group. So he obviously spends most of his time in blinds watching shore birds. This must be how he developed his ninja skills. I'll bet the idea of the Cosbolt fighter originated from watching cormorants dive after prey! It must get lonely out there in the marsh, with only his notebook and guitar to keep him company. But thanks to guys like Alex who study seabirds, we know interesting things like the fact that baby Fulmars projectile vomit in the face of predators. Remember, you heard it here first! So if you ever get to meet Alex, give him a friendly wave and retch.

*Remember, readers, it's fiction! I'm fully aware that IWSG stands for Independent Writers Sharing Goodwill. Or something like that.  

If you aren't already following, you can check out Alex's blog here.  And Alex - all kidding aside - 

Thank You!