Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas

My review of the 2005 movie Joyeux Noël expresses my feelings about the holiday:


Human societies seem to have some common rules, one of which is that the young men must kill or be killed for whatever causes the old men have brainwashed them to believe. This is a movie about one of the few times in our history when the warriors told their overlords to stuff it, if only for a moment. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 1914, during the first sacred holiday of the first world war, the trench warriors set aside their rifles, ignored their orders, and walked into the no-man's land to celebrate Christmas with their enemies.

As the film pictures it, the Germans first put Christmas trees up just above their sight lines, with signs that said "you no shoot, we no shoot" or "Merry Christmas." Then the Scots brought out their ubiquitous bagpipes and played Christmas carols. The French broke out their champagne. The men shared pictures of their loved ones. They roasted some pigs together for Christmas dinner, and their chaplains held Christmas religious ceremonies. They cleared no-man's land of the rotten corpses, buried their fallen comrades, and helped their enemies to do the same. When they had cleared away their dead, they played soccer where the bodies had been strewn.

This movie is a fictionalized account of the events of those two days. Peace broke out in many places along the lines, but this story centers on three lieutenants who commanded about a hundred men near a small French village, as well as two German opera singers who were there to lift the men's morale. While the fictional portions are not especially compelling, and the historical details are not entirely accurate, the film is poignant because the basic non-fictional core is so powerful that it hides any flaws in the film's fictional overlay. I suppose one could make a better movie on the same subject, but this is a very good movie indeed. It is rated 7.7 at IMDb and was nominated for the foreign language Oscar as well as the corresponding BAFTA. Don't let those nominations create an image in your mind of a typical arty, incomprehensible foreign film. Most of the dialogue is in English, and anything important which is not in English can be understood without subtitles, since it involves many men communicating to one another without a common language. I watched the film on Christmas Day. If you can do that and keep your eyes dry, you're a much tougher hombre than I am. You may not even be human.

The real-life aftermath of the unpremeditated Christmas truce was shock among the high commands of the opposing nations. Nothing could be more disastrous for the world's sense of proper order than to have young men of opposing countries declaring their comradeship and refusing to kill one another. Why, it's downright socialist! Generals on both sides declared this peacemaking to be treasonous, and all the lingering goodwill generated by the spontaneous outbreak of peace had been completely quashed by Easter of 1915, when the men would again resume the unquestioned killing of one another on behalf of their common God, who apparently issued contradictory orders to the two sides. Before Armistice Day in 1918, an entire European generation was lost. Some thirty million young men would return to their homes wounded. Their mothers would be envied by the ten million others whose sons did not return at all.

Many young men on our fragile blue globe are still dying for old men's causes, so it gives us some hope to look back on that Christmas of 1914 and recall the foot soldiers who proved that, despite all indications to the contrary, we do have brotherhood within us, if only we reach for it.

Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) to all of you



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