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GRAVES: Christmas can bring peace anywhere — even a war

Joe Graves, Mitchell Superintendent  Ninety-nine years ago today, something rather odd happened in Europe. According to Stanley Weintraub, author of “Silent Night: The Story of The World War I Christmas Truce.” it began when German troops on the Western Front began topping their trenches with illuminated Christmas trees sent to them by the Kaiser along with their Meerschaum pipes. (Yeah, the Kaiser had his faults, but he did know how to shop for Christmas.)

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The British, Scottish and French troops that opposed them in the lines weren’t entirely sure what to make of these odd toppings for the ubiquitous barbed wire until invited to join the German troops in traditional Christmas carols. The allied confusion is easily understood; imagine any place more ironic for the singing of “Stille Nacht.” Carols were followed by an impromptu soccer game and pretty soon all Heaven broke loose.

The unofficial truce that resulted that evening, continued on to the next and, depending upon one’s specific location on the lines, well beyond even Christmas Day, was entirely a bottom-up phenomenon. Neither allied nor Central Powers leaders planned it or even condoned it. It in fact required, as brutally portrayed in the 2005 European film, “Joyeux Noel,” the direct intervention of line officers to bring the truce to an end. And the roughly four years of brutal, entrenched, hopeless warfare that ensued largely trampled its memory into the viscous, sucking mud of that Great War. I am not a fan of “alternative history.”

Those non-professional so-called students of history who drone on endlessly on how things may have turned out differently if a particular decision or event had been altered are really just speculating about that which can never be proven or disproven. It is the stuff of fantasy.

Thus, I don’t feel the need to consider how the 20th century might have played out if the privates’ truce had simply ended the war in a draw. But I do still search for the meaning of historical events.

Yes, this is a tricky and perhaps even nonsensical undertaking, but I do subscribe in part to Santayana’s admonition that those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat history.

And so I wonder, what can be learned from the World War I Christmas truce?

The potential answers to that are endless and so I would delimit the question to my own field, education. Christmas looms large in schools. The school year can be divided up into a number of themes, most evident in elementary school classrooms and hallways, where the new school year gives way to fall, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, winter, St. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter and the coming of summer. And among these school seasons, nothing looms so large as Christmas. It is the mid-year break which provides a much-needed respite to students and staff alike. It is the present exchange that is the highlight of the classroom Christmas party, the theme of a high school’s door-decorating contest, the treats in the teacher workroom, the candy cane license program which allows students to bring them into the middle school classroom, the holiday sweater contest and on and on and on.

Yet there is something quite different from this theme than those of the other seasons or holidays. It is bigger, it is more elaborate, it is almost overwhelming as the Advent calendar doors grow closer to all being ajar. It is more not in the additive or even the multiplicative sense but in the exponential one. It is the quantum leap from the everyday.

If you have read my articles over the years, you will know that I am not a fan of school breaks. Any long recess from school leads inexorably to regression, the loss of academic proficiency among many students. Any significant break in teaching and learning makes moving students to proficiency an agonizing game of two steps forward, one step back.

And summer is the great, though not the only, culprit in this demoralizing game. The second one is Christmas break, often 16 straight days when students not only don’t progress in their literacy and numeracy but begin to slip backwards.

Yet, though I would happily gut or at least abbreviate the summer break, in truth, I wouldn’t change a thing about the long, simultaneously exciting and restful break between the semesters. For there is something about Christmas that entrances the minds of the children that are our students and that brings welldeserved rest to their teacher and principals.

It is the same thing, I imagine, that brought a blessed respite to an ugly war almost a century ago to a group of men, all of whom have now shed this mortal coil.

There is something about Christmas and though I am incapable of fully enunciating just what that something is — who can make effable the ineffable? — it doesn’t really matter that I cannot fully communicate just what that something is.

For I already know.