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Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch: Book recounts World War I’s informal Christmas Eve truce of 1914; ‘Harry Potter’ back in theaters

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Dec. 19, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

A year ago I heard an interview on National Public Radio about a new Christmas book titled Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce. Stanley Weintraub, the author, told in a few minutes the fantastic story of how troops on both sides of the line, from the English Channel to the Swiss border, decided to stop fighting on Christmas Eve 1914. The Great War was to continue until Nov. 11, 1918, but the one truce from the soldiers that held from one day to a week, depending on location, was a Christmas truce that did mean peace in the midst of war.

Finally, this November I got around to reading Silent Night (2001: The Free Press, New York, $25, hardcover).

Silent Night reads, as one might imagine, like a history book. It doesn’t have the great literary style of a lyrical novel. And yet the basic story is incredibly powerful. The story of German troops who thought the war would last only a few months – putting up Christmas trees along the Western front, singing Christmas carols and eventually coming our of their trenches and inviting their confreres across the line to do likewise – should never be forgotten. It is a story particularly meaningful for us in this time of rumors of war during the Advent-Christmas season of 2002.

The Christmas truce of 1914 seemed to come entirely from the ordinary fighting men stuck in trenches knee-deep with water, where people often slept standing. In fact, the high command wanted no fraternizing with the enemy, for fear humanizing the enemy would make war very difficult if not impossible to continue.

The fears of the high command were well founded. And yet there is something striking about a cessation of fighting on several cold winter nights so that both sides could bury their dead. One memorable scene has a German chaplain leading a service for the dead of both sides as hymns are sung in both German and English.

As the truce progressed, soldiers shared with the other side their Christmas boxes, sent from England or Germany. The English were particularly in awe of the occasional German gift of a meerschaum pipe. The Germans’ spiked helmets were a rare and valued gift. The English passed on jams and jellies and Christmas deserts. At some spots along the line kegs of German beer were rolled across to the English troops, who were thankful (but said it was watery).

Adolph Hitler, although baptized a Catholic, is reported on Christmas 1914 as refusing any sign of religious observance which his unit marked at a nearby monastery. Hitler refused to be anywhere near the service that a Lutheran theology student by the name of Corporal Frobenius offered to a joint congregation of Protestants and Catholics.

At some places on the line the truce continued on Boxing Day, Dec. 26, which stems from the fact that in Victorian England servants had to work on Christmas. So the day after Christmas the wealthy families would give each servant a “Christmas Box” and a half-holiday. The Germans also celebrated a second Christmas on St. Stephen’s Day, the day following Christmas.

In a few places the truce held against the warnings of officers until the beginning of the New Year. But eventually the long battle of attrition continued as new troops were moved to the front to replace those troops felt compromised.

War demands hating your enemy. Near the end of Silent Night Graham Greene is quoted, from his 1978 novel The Human Factor: “An enemy had to remain a caricature if he was to be kept at a safe distance: an enemy should never come alive. The generals were right – no Christmas cheer ought to be exchanged between the trenches.”

The last chapter of Silent Night has an intriguing theme. What if the Christmas truce of 1914 had held and the armies from each side had refused to fight? Stanley Weintraub gives us a fable of what might have happened during much of the 20th Century. It is a fable of peace for a century filled with war.

*****

Movie Review

I admit to being slow to see Chris Columbus’ second installment of J.K. Rowling’s incredibly popular "Harry Potter" series. I have not read the books and do not have the enthusiasm for a movie lasting two hours and 41 minutes. (By the way, entering the Twenty-Four Frames Cinema here in Cheney, manager Laura Boenheim-Ulyatt said the second Lord of the Rings film is scheduled to be four hours and 5 minutes. I’m afraid I will be slow to see that popular film also.)

I do not get all the “ins and outs” of the plot in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Potter loyalists tell me you must read the books. Well, I don’t think that is going to happen.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his wizard school mates Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) do a much improved job of acting in Chamber of Secrets. Particularly Daniel Radcliffe is able to convincingly carry the movie as the main character.

The movie begins with Harry jailed in his Surey home. Ron arrives in a flying car that enables Harry to escape to Ron’s home and eventually, when they miss the famous express to Hogwarts, they fly all the way to the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. A strange little house-elf named Dobby early on in the movie warns Harry not to return to his beloved school.

At the school we return to rivalry between the houses of students and a darkening plot that would be good for the famed psychiatrist Carl Jung to analyze. Smaller children should definitely be warned the Chamber of Secrets is loaded with a very scary snake and lots of spiders that would give Indiana Jones a run for his money.

We have a new villain in Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs), the father of Classmate Draco. Jason Isaacs was the monstrous British officer in Mel Gibson’s film The Patriot. I wondered what his next film would be. Well, he continues his over-the-top villain tradition in Chamber of Secrets.

It is a pleasure to see the late Irish actor Richard Harris give such a dignified performance as the lovable Professor Dumbledore. You can almost see his noble stature weakened by the cancer within. He will be missed.

Maggie Smith continues her fine job at Professor McGonagall. Kenneth Branagh does a wonderful take on Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, who shows us what a celebrity narcissist is really like. I think J.K. Rowling is making a strong critique on our modern culture.

If you can sit through 10 minutes or so of credits at the end there is a brief surprise featuring Branagh. I am told it is a clue to the third installment of Harry Potter.

Director Chris Columbus does a serviceable job as a storyteller and visual movie maker. He obviously loves all the tricks that digital technology allows to movie makers.

It will be interesting to see where the Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, who gave us A Little Princess, will take the Potter tradition next year when the inevitable Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban comes our way.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). There are some frightening scenes as stated above that involve millions of spiders and a giant snake. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting gives Chamber of Secrets a rating of A-II – adults and adolescents.

(Father Caswell is pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney, and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane. His reviews also appear in the Cheney Free Press.)


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