Thursday, December 20, 2018

Christmas in the Trenches...

Perhaps I am like everyone else waiting and watching for the one Christmas miracle. There is always the story of the reporter out on the streets of New York looking for the miracle (or maybe that was a TV movie?)

With Christmas 2018 just days away I knew it was time to review two of my favorite miracle stories that happened many years ago.

In some ways it is hard to imagine that just a few are still alive who can tell us the stories. Luckily for us we rely on writers and storytellers and musicians who continue to bring the stories to life for us.

I met John McCutcheon years ago at the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee. I bought my ticket weeks ahead of time so I would not miss his performance. On the evening of his show I found myself, as well as several hundred storytellers, under the tent on that October night. The stage was full of instruments from banjo to piano to guitar to mandolin, and all were to be played by McCutcheon. For a full hour he played and sang and wowed us. Towards the end of the show he grew quiet as he began singing his signature piece, “Christmas in the Trenches.” It would be easy to say there was not a dry eye under the big tent. It is the story of the Christmas truce on Christmas Eve, 1914. The story within the song tells us how the British and the German soldiers put down their weapons and crossed into No Man’s Land briefly to hold this truce. It is said they traded cigarettes, songs and played soccer together. There are historical letters and photographs in the archives in Britain to piece this story together. The stories say that the Germans sang “Stille Nacht” and the Britons sang back. We also need to keep in mind that these were just young boys away from home for the first time deep in the trenches of war.

In another wonderful story we find the people of North Platte, Nebraska the center of a story beginning on Christmas of 1941. This story was documented fully in the book, “Once Upon a Town,” by Bob Greene. The folks in North Platte heard their sons were coming through town on the train on Christmas. They wanted to greet their sons and send them off to war properly so they organized a welcoming committee to meet the train with food and gifts for their boys. 
They were quite surprised when the train arrived with other young men and not their own. It didn’t take long for the folks of North Platte to make a commitment to meet every train passing through with service men. The word spread, and as a result, by the time the war ended over 6 million young men were served by this community. We have to remember this was a time of war and rationing, yet for those war years the folks of North Platte made coffee and cakes, gave out magazines, and entertained the troops with the piano in the station. It is impossible to imagine the magnitude of the food except to say the minimal sandwich distribution for each train was 20 bushel baskets. They began making birthday cakes too. They made at least twenty a day and gave them out to the young men and women celebrating a birthday. Popcorn balls were made as well with some of the young women writing their name and address on them. After the war some of those women became brides of the recipients!

It is almost unimaginable that a small community could conceive of such a project and continue it until the North Platte Canteen closed on April 1, 1946.
These two Christmas miracles are now long ago and years old. The stories exist in yellowed letters and fragile newspaper accounts. I don’t know about you, but just thinking about these stories gives me great hope for mankind. Perhaps it rests on our shoulders as a bit of a challenge as well.

If you are in need of a Christmas miracle, listen to McCutcheon sing his song or read the story by Greene. Or, just maybe, you need to look into the face of a child…that ought to be enough.

So, for this 2018 Christmas, I wish you the warmest of holidays with your family and friends. Pull down the barriers and let the truce take hold, if only for a day.

Merry Christmas.

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