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.

All I want for Christmas...

Their front two teeth were missing. They always wore red flannel shirts, but on this day, they had new red flannel shirts with suspenders. I left Hamilton early so I would be able to attend, and sat in the front row. I didn’t sit in the front row because I could take good pictures. No, we had no camera because of the cost of film. No, I sat in the front row so I would be there for them and cheer and clap loudly, as mothers do. They weren’t exceptional singers, but it was Christmas, and with their teeth out, who better to sing, “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.” I am sure Mrs. Frymier, their music teacher, had a lot of convincing to do to even get them to participate, but then again, they were in the first grade.

Following the program, Art Ryan dimmed the lights in the gym for the annual Christmas sing before the vacation. Parents and friends streamed in from every corner to participate in this activity. In all the years at Hendry Park Elementary School, this was my absolute favorite activity. With the lights dimmed and Mrs. Frymier at the piano, we all sang our hearts out before collecting our little folks to take them home for the holidays.

The truth, is after all my boys had graduated from Hendry Park, I began the tradition at Hamilton Elementary School. Maybe it still lives, I don’t know, but I do know it was my favorite day of the year.

Matthew and Jonah both graduated from Hendry Park, and now it is Graham’s turn to fill all of those shoes. The production is bigger than during my children’s years. It is an evening event so many more can attend. I am invited to not only attend, but to come over for Graham’s birthday dinner before the event.
I ride my bike over on this rainy night with all the bells and whistles lit up. I even wear my Dollar World necklace of lit up Christmas lights…”the better to see you with, my dear!” As I round the corner I smell the burgers on the grill and pull up to the lit up house of Aaron and Rachel. Graham’s cousins from Ft. Wayne have already arrived, and I walk in with my birthday present wrapped up in Christmas paper! Presents are opened before dinner because, well, because Graham is now ten! He loves all the presents, but I must confess, I think mine is the favorite. His gift is an Angola sweatshirt, designed and lettered by Connie at the Angola Sports Center. (Please buy local!) He puts it on right away. Homemade cake follows the cheeseburgers and the lighting of the birthday candles. We chat and laugh and talk, but soon it is time to get Graham off to the program. We encourage him to change into a dress shirt. I vote for the flannel shirt and suspenders, but realize, of course, he owns no such clothes. But no matter how we encourage and plead, he will not take off the Angola sweatshirt. Rachel and I both laugh, “No one will see him anyway. There are so many kids!”

We all split up as Aaron takes Jonah to hockey practice, Cindy and Rachel take Graham, and I take the bike in the dark and the rain.
I thought we would be early, but not at all. We were lucky to get seats in the back row. With our cell phones handy (for the photos) we wait for the children to come in, and, of course, Graham is proudly in the front row wearing his purple sweatshirt! We all smile. This is definitely a Christmas program…or Holiday program…to remember.

Some songs are new, but others are the old favorites, and I hum along. The gym is filled with families including parents and grandparents and lots of babies and toddlers. As I glance around I know many folks who had children here once, but now come to cheer on the grandchildren. When it is over e chat with Graham and other folks, before I head outside into the holy darkness with large raindrops falling everywhere.

My bike is waiting, and I turn on all the bells and whistles before I head out into the glistening streets. I take a look at my beloved Miss Columbia all decked out and bike on home with new memories mingling with toothless little boys in flannel shirts.

Noel. Noel.

Farewell, November!

  Elizabeth Coatsworth once wrote, “November comes, and November goes with the last red berries and the first white snows…” We are certainly...