Remembering, Again, The 1914 Christmas Truce

Truce

I’ve posted on this a couple of times, and as it is one of the more unusual ethics events in history to occur on Christmas, here it is again. Of course, as an America, I am joyful about another, more consequential military event that happened on Christmas. Washington crossed the Delaware river on this date. His resulting victory over the Hessians at Trenton was, in the end, less than consequential militarily, but it was important nonetheless . It bolstered the rebelling colonies’ morale, at a point where there were serious doubts that the nascent democracy had any chance to prevail.

One of the weirdest events in world history took place on Christmas 1914, at the very beginning of the five year, pointless and stunningly destructive carnage of The Great War, what President Woodrow Wilson, right as usual, called “The War to End All Wars.”

World War I, as it was later called after the world war it caused succeeded it,  led to the deaths of more than 25 million people, and if anything was accomplished by them, I have yet to read about it.

The much sentimentalized event was a spontaneous Christmas truce, as soldiers on opposing sides on the Western Front, defying orders from superiors, pretended the war didn’t exist and left their trenches, put their weapons and animus aside, sang carols,  shared food, buried their dead, and perhaps, depending on which source you choose to believe, even played soccer against each other.

The brass on both sides—this was a British and German phenomenon only—took steps to ensure that  this would never happen again, and it never did.

It all began on Christmas Eve, when at 8:30 p.m. an officer of the Royal Irish Rifles reported to headquarters that “The Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and wishing us a Happy Xmas. Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions.” The two sides progressed to serenading each other with Christmas carols, with the German combatants crooning  “Silent Night,” and the British adversaries responding with “The First Noel.“ The war diary of the Scots Guards reported that a private  “met a German Patrol and was given a glass of whisky and some cigars, and a message was sent back saying that if we didn’t fire at them, they would not fire at us.”

The same deal was struck spontaneously at other locales across the battlefield. Another British soldier reported that as Christmas Eve wound down into Christmas morning,  “all down our line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war: ‘English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!’” He wrote in a letter home that he heard,

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Comment Of The Day: “The Throw-Away Puppy”

puppy-for-christmas

Here is JP’s Comment of the Day on the post, “The Throw-Away Puppy”

It seems like every holiday I see a post that is similar to this. Don’t give a new dog for Christmas. Don’t give rabbits/ducks for Easter. Don’t get turkey’s for Thanksgiving (apparently a thing out here in rural Missouri). So when my oldest son asked for a turtle for his birthday this year, I immediately said no. Of course, in his mind, this wasn’t fair. His younger brother had bought a beta fish with his birthday money. As such he thought he deserved something similar. I told him there was a big difference between a fish that lives for a few years at most and a turtle that can live up to 50+ years. If he was getting a turtle, he was in for a life-time commitment and he was too young to make that decision (at 37 I think I’m too young to make that decision).

Too many people live in the now. They want instant gratification. When that gratification wears off, they tend to move on to the next thing. This is the main reason why pets make terrible gifts: they are long term commitments. For context, lets look at how long.

The average life of a dog and a cat depending on a breed is 12 years. This assumes they are healthy for most of their life. For a horse 25-30 years. Rabbits are 10 year commitments. Hamsters and Guinea pigs fall into the 2-5 year range. Snakes, depending on the breed can live between 15-20 years. Goldfish are a lot harder to tell. Though most don’t live past a year, many have lived for decades with the oldest one in captivity living to 43. The lifespan off all of these pets illustrates the same thing: if you take on the responsibility, you should realize you are in it or the long haul.

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The Throw-Away Puppies

That was a Facebook post relayed for comment on Reddit. I read it with a large, happy rescue dog snoring on my lap; he had already been given up to shelters twice in his young life. I found myself wondering how many innocent, loving, trusting animals would be experiencing the same cruelty, not just after Christmas but after a pandemic in which shelters have been depleted by people seeking companionship while they are stuck at home.

I suppose it is a good thing the Facebook user who composed this had her name redacted: some crazed PETA members–or my wife—might have tracked her down with mayhem on their mind. I have known people like the writers—still do, in fact—and they all regard themselves as decent, ethical people whose values are in order. In truth, they have the same ethical vacuum as dog-fighting enthusiasts, just from a different socioeconomic perspective

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The “White Christmas” Ethics Guide 2020

2020 Introduction

I have some very dear friends who are still angry with me for writing this admittedly harsh analysis of their favorite Christmas movie. Maybe that’s why I didn’t post it last Christmas season; I don’t know. It really is an ethics mess, however, and as I’ve stated elsewhere this week on Ethics Alarms, if you are going to make an ethics movie, someone involved ought to have functioning ethics alarms. The heartwarming ending—I still get misty when the old general played by Dean Jagger, gets saluted and serenaded by his reunited army unit—doesn’t make up for all the gratuitous lying and betraying going on in the rest of the film.

I have never mentioned this here before, but the movie was the result of an ethical act by one of the most unlikely people imaginable, Danny Kaye. If you search for Danny here, you will find that I have more connections to him than to any other entertainer, primarily through my co-writing and direction of an original musical about him, written by his long-time publicist and my friend. I credited Kaye with my interest in performing, musicals, and comedy, but my research into the real man was disheartening: in stark contrast to his persona and his public image, Danny was a miserable, paranoid, selfish, mean and insecure sociopath when he wasn’t playing “Danny Kaye,” which could be on stage or off it. “White Christmas” had been conceived as a re-make of “Holiday Inn” with the same cast, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Fred couldn’t do the project, so his part was re-written for Donald O’Connor, who became ill so close shooting that there was no time to retool the script and have the film ready for its target holiday release. In desperation, the producers asked Kaye if he would play Bing’s side-kick even though it meant 1) playing a support, which he had never done in a movie since becoming a star 2) playing a role that couldn’t highlight his special talents 3) subordinate himself to Bing Crosby, who was indeed the bigger star and box office draw, and most daring of all, expose his own limitations by doing dance numbers created for Donald O’Connor. Kaye was not a trained dancer, just a gifted mimic and athlete who could do almost anything well. Danny (actually Sylvia, his wife, agent and and career Svengali) had his price for the rescue: he demanded $200,000 and 10% of the gross.

Everyone around Danny Kaye was shocked that he agreed to all of this. Not only did he agree, he also amazed everyone by not playing the under-appreciated star on set, by doing O’Connor’s choreography as well as he did, and by knowing how not to steal focus from the star, something he infamously refused to do when he was in “Lady in the Dark” with Gertrude Lawrence. The movie was the top grossing film of 1954, and the most successful movie musical up to that time.

Danny’s good deed was punished, because today it is by far the most seen of his films, and is likely to be the source of his public image as time goes on. Yet it is not his best movie, or a fair representation of what made him a unique and popular supporter. Like Darren McGavin, a fine and versatile dramatic actor cursed to be remembered only as the father in “A Christmas Story,” Danny’s slice of immortality also minimizes his legacy and talent. Watch “The Court Jester.” With your kids or grandchildren.

1. The First Scene

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Ethics Warm-Up, 12/8/2020: Yet Another Date That Lives in Infamy

It’s not Pearl Harbor, but the assassination of John Lennon in Central Park 40 years ago today by a deranged fan is one of the saddest days in popular music history, on the level of the premature deaths of George Gershwin and Buddy Holly.

I really don’t want to talk about it.

1. Scary. The New Yorker’s Steve Coll wrote that”Those of us in journalism have to come to terms with the fact that free speech, a principle that we hold sacred, is being weaponized against the principles of journalism.” David Harsanyi writes at The National Review,

If you believe Americans are too stupid to hear wrongthink, transgressive ideas, and, yes, fake news, you’re not a fan of the small-l liberal conception of free expression. That’s fine. Those ideas seem to be falling into disfavor with many. But the sanctity of free speech isn’t predicated on making sure people hear the right things, it’s predicated on letting everyone have their say. Because as always, the question becomes who decides what expression is acceptable. I’m not keen on having the fatuous media reporters at CNN or activist “fact-checkers” at the Washington Post adjudicating what is and isn’t permissible for mass consumption…this kind of selective esteem for sacred ideals is becoming popular on the contemporary Left. Religious freedom is wonderful when the government protects Native Americans who want to smoke peyote, but it is “weaponized” when an order of nuns decides it’s not interested in chipping in for condoms or an Evangelical business owner decides he’d rather not participate in a gay marriage. Due-process rights are foundational to American life, unless they are being “weaponized” by college students accused of sexual assault….For four years, journalists acted as if Donald Trump was an existential threat to free expression because he berated and insulted reporters. Trump’s tone was certainly unpresidential, but it needs to be said that he did absolutely nothing to hinder anyone from criticizing him or reporting about him. Contra the self-canonized Jim Acosta, it was not a particularly dangerous time to tell the truth. Indeed, reporters were not only free to accuse the president of being a fascist, they could concoct entire fake scandals surrounding the Russians, and Trump was powerless to stop them….

As I will be saying for the next four years as often as possible: This is what those who voted for Joe Biden have endorsed in their determination to express their tantrum over a President whose style they found obnoxious. I really don’t know how they will be able to live with themselves.

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Thanksgiving Ethics Quiz: The Vatican’s Cool Nativity Scene

I don’t understand this at all.

Thanksgiving is, at least in this country, the traditional kick-off of the holidays and all the madness, music, traditions, literature, art, fun, reflection and controversies that accompany them.

Slightly off topic: I just looked in on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade broadcast.

Oh. My. God.

What is a parade without anyone watching and cheering along the route? What’s the point? All the energy, all of it, is gone. Worst of all are the live—are they really live?—performances of numbers from various Broadway shows in the middle of the street. These are always weird, but without any ambient sounds or people in the background, they are creepy and weird. The look like a post-nuclear apocalypse freak-out by community theater survivors. Also creepy: the networks’ socially distanced “hosts” now resemble those old Soviet news shows where the anchors were separated by about 15 feet at a long desk.

Where was I? Oh, right, the holidays…

With all the commercializing and vulgarizing of Christmas, the unlistenable “modern” Christmas songs, and the cynical “Christmas is horrible” movie comedies (like “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”), the culture relies on the Christian religious institutions to provide context, continuity, seriousness and dignity to the season lest the ritual cease to have any meaning at all. With that duty in mind, here is the just-revealed Vatican Nativity scene:

vatican-2020-nativity-730x487

Your Ethics Alarms Thanksgiving Ethics Quiz is…

WHAT THE HELL??

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“Miracle On 34th Street,”An Ethics Companion, Continued….Chapter 2: The Story Unfolds…

The Introduction is here.

Chapter I is here.

Let’s get this out of the way up front: Kris is not really Santa Clause. The sooner you understand that, the more sense the movie will make.

Now onward:

2. The bad mother and the sneaky lawyer.

While Kris is enjoying his starring role in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, we meet Susan Walker, Doris’s young daughter, and Attorney Fred Gailey,  who lives in the apartment next door. Susan has been raised  to be a joyless little cynic, the victim of an arrogant and misguided single mother who needed to read more Bruno Bettelheim ( except that Bruno didn’t write The Uses of Enchantment  until 1976).  Doris, as we soon surmise, has allowed a bad marriage to make her suspicious of dreams, hope, and wonder, and she is passing her own disappointment in life off to her daughter at the tender age of nine. Nice.

Lots of parents do this, I suppose, but that doesn’t mitigate how cruel and damaging it is. I remember how horrified I was at Susan’s brainwashing when I first saw the film at about the same age as Natalie Wood was in the movie. My parents, particularly my mother, surrounded my sister and I with fantasy and whimsy. They went to elaborate measures to make Santa Claus seem real, and the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. At one point my sister, having read a story about a lollypop tree, planted a lollypop stick in the back yard. My mother pooh-poohed the idea, telling my sister that this was just a fantastic story she was believing, and that she was  going to disappointed.  Then, three days later, my father exclaimed as he looked out the kitchen window,  “I don’t believe it! Look at that!” And there, about four feet height and covered with lolly pops of all  the colors of the rainbow, was the lollypop tree.

My sister and I weren’t idiots; we knew that our parents had made the tree. But we played along, and the lesson was taught.  Life is more fun and bearable if you believe in the unbelievable, and are open to a little magic in the world. Our parents gave my sister and me a gift that made us love music, literature, humor, mystery, and surprises. Doris Walker, out of ignorance, grief or anger, was an incompetent and selfish parent. ” We should be realistic  and completely truthful with our children  and not have them growing up believing in  a lot of legends and myths like Santa Claus, for example,” she says.

And your authority for this proposition is what, Doris? Generations of children have grown to healthy, happy maturity being raised on myths, legends and fairy tales, and you, with your invaluable perspective as a department store employee, are confident in your certitude that their parents were wrong, and you are right. Wow. Continue reading

From The Ethics Alarms Archives: “Christmas: the Ethical Holiday”

Once again, I am re-posting the first Ethics Alarms Christmas post from way back in 2010, its first full year. (The last time I revived this post was in 2016.) I’m not inclined to change it, though I did fix some typos.

In the 2016 introduction, I wrote, “The ascendant attitude toward Christmas is both anti-religious and non-ethical.” That is still true.  In my extended neighborhood, there are giant penguins, snowmen, Santas, dragons, unicorns, the Grinch and Christmas Storm Troopers on lawns, and exactly one manger or reference to Jesus. There is no mention of peace, good will or love. My wishes of “Merry Christmas!” are returned, I’d estimate, about 20% of the time. Often I get glares, because saying “Merry Christmas!” must mean that I have a MAGA cap in my closet.

Those who might be otherwise tempted to show some signs of faith may be intimidated by  the Diversity Fascists, like this guy:

diversity-tweet

Yes, many people–they call themselves “progressives”— believe that a healthy national culture embracing love, charity, generosity and kindness is disrespectful. The culture seems to be capitulating to the bullying without a fight. The two most prominent Christmas movies on cable this year are the mildly cynical “A Christmas Story” and the wretched “Christmas Vacation,” which isn’t even a good Griswald movie, much less a decent Christmas movie. I have been searching for the original “Miracle on 34th Street”—yes, I know I haven’t finished the ethics review–and keep finding arguably the worst version, the one with Richard Attenborough playing Kris Kringle. “Four Christmases,” another bitter  comedy, has appeared many times. “A Christmas Carol” is now rare fare, but we get many showings of “Scrooged,” with Tiny Tim played by MaryLou Retton.

Some of the Hallmark Christmas stations have been playing a Whitney Houston version of “A Christmas Song” that interjects “Happy Kwanza” in the lyrics. Thanks to John Legend, we now have a Christmastime ditty that endorses abortion.

Think about that a minute.

I don’t know how to reverse the damage already inflicted on our society, but I do know that we have to try.

Here’s the post… Continue reading

Comment(s) Of The Day: My Annual Christmas Music Lament: Parts I and II

Lots of excellent comments around the blog this week, perhaps because the number of quality comments tends to be inverse to the number of posts I’m able to put up. I haven’t even scratched the surface of Tuesday’s Open Forum, which, I am told, contains many treasures.

I’m putting up two Comments of the Day that resulted from the two Christmas music posts. The first is unusually short for a COTD, but it made me laugh out loud, which is hard to do these days. Joel Mundt was commenting on a Christmas song from Hell called “Fairytale of New York” that Steve-O was kind enough to plant on our brains. The upbeat ditty’s lyrics:

You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last

Joel earned Comment of the Day honors by writing,

“Fairytale of New York” still sounds better than “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime”, which is the worst song – Christmas-related or otherwise – in the history of humanity.

If there was a Christmas song with the title of “I Chopped the Presents Up With an Axe on Christmas Day Before I Kicked the Neighbor in the Head and Burned the Churches Down and Spit on the Mistletoe and Let the Dog Pee in the Egg Nog”…that song would still be better than “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime.”

And I LOVE Egg Nog…

A bit harsh, perhaps (my son, who is an afficianado of all pop music written after 1963 likes Paul’s Christmas song), especially when the competition for Worst Song Ever is so fierce. By all means, submit your nominees.

Joel’s COTD was in the Part II thread, about modern Christmas songs. Paul Compton’s Comment of the Day was in reaction to My Annual Christmas Music Lament: Part I, The Worst Carols.

His addendum about Bing Crosby’s star power compared to his disciples Frank and Dean also went straight to my heart… Continue reading

My Annual Christmas Music Lament: Part II, The Modern Christmas Songs

For some reason, just like the Hallmark cable channels, the satellite radio monopoly Sirius-XM has gone nuts this pre-Christmas season. I count six channels devoted to Christmas music, and I’m sure there are some other buried in there. There are two traditional Christmas music stations that appear to be playing the same songs and recordings; a Country Christmas channel, which means really bad compositions like “Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy,” a poor rip-off of the slightly less revolting, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and better songs and carols sung with a twang; a Gospel Christmas channel, and “Nativity,” which includes only carols and songs referencing Jesus, and “Holly,” which avoid religious references completely and is required listening if you want to know how few modern Christmas ballads deserve annual airing. I could two: “Last Christmas,” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” neither of which can be sung around a piano anywhere but backstage at the Grammys.

I been forcing myself to listen to all of it for days, and have reached some rueful conclusions:

  • In their rush to avoid referring to Jesus, the programmers over-play the established Winter Solstice canon to the point of madness. We’re talking “Snowfall,” “Winter Wonderland,” “I’ve Got Your Love To Keep Me Warm,” “Sleighride,” “It’s a Marshmallow World,” “Let It Snow,” “Frosty the Snowman,’ and of course, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” by every possible artist, over and over. None of these songs are about Christmas, but if you’re a Druid, I suppose they are appropriate and festive.

At least some versions have lyric changes made to refer to Christmas. Sometimes Frosty says, instead of “I’ll be back again some day!” that he’ll be back on Christmas day. (Is Frosty some kind of a weird Christ figure?). In Winter Wonderland, Farmer Brown’s birthday party is sometimes turned into a Christmas party.

  • Boy, the ex-Beatles’ attempts at Christmas songs are awful, especially John Lennon’s, with its depressive message, and the lame and gloomy couplet,

And so Merry Christmas, and a happy new year

Let’s make it a good one, without any fear.

It is also the last popular Christmas song to be written with a religious theme. Think about that, and what it says about the status of religion in U.S. culture.

  • I know this is a personal preference,  but when Bing Crosby’s recordings come on, his warm, smooth, impeccably-crafted delivery just blows everyone else out of the metaphorical water. Yes, even Old Blue Eyes.

Christmas keeps Bing’s legacy alive, though in an unfairly narrow context. We will never hear a voice like that again, I fear.

  • Having been forced to listen to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” until it kept me awake at night, I have concluded that the suddenly au courant criticism of the song—bullying, you know—is baloney. It teaches the valuable lesson that being a target and a victim need not be permanent, and that if one has character and develops skills, there will be opportunities to prove one’s critics wrong.

I think of Rudolph as a reindeer version of Desmond Doss.

At the risk of being repetitive (I’ve know I mentioned many of these before), here are some Christmas song lyrics that could be, and in some cases, should be, fixed.

  • What’s a drummer doing by the manger, with a baby sleeping? This has bothered me since the first time I heard “The Little Drummer Boy.”
  • Speaking of “Do You Hear What I Hear?”: I get the wind talking to the lamb, and I’ll even accept the lamb talking to the shepherd boy, but I’ve never understood how the boy had a chance to meet the mighty kind, much less tell him to bring the child “silver and gold.”
  • Listen to Bobby Helms sing his 1957 hit  “Jingle Bell Rock,” and then tell me he doesn’t keep singing “feet” when the lyrics obviously are “beat.” Amazingly, some covers of this song also seem to be singing “feet.”
  • Dumbest Christmas lyric of all time: The Beach Boys’ repeated (In “Little Saint Nick”) “Christmas comes this time each year.”
  • I’m tempted to nominate “see the kids bunch” from “Silver Bells” for the second worst. That requires  assuming that “then we got upsot” in Jingle Bells is an intentional howler.
  • The lovely and wistful World War II Christmas ballad “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” refers to “presents on the tree.” Who hangs presents on a Christmas tree? How would you do that? Many recent versions substitute “”round” for on. Good.
  • The late Andy Williams’ Christmas standard, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” he lists ‘scary ghost stories” as a feature of Christmas. I know the song is referring to “A Christmas Carol,” but that’s a single ghost story. Andy makes Christmas sound like Halloween…

Finally, here’s an example of how attention to tone and craft improved a Christmas song and allowed it to become, deservedly, a classic.

“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is certainly somber, but having been through some sad Christmases, it’s an essential part of the canon, and a wonderful song. It almost was too sad, however. Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine, who wrote the  song ” for Judy Garland’s 1944 movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis”, originally had the lyrics…

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last…
Next year we may all be living in the past…

Yikes! Judy Garland and others insisted on a revision, and the songwriters ultimately settled on …

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light…
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight..

Another gloomy lyric that was vetoed:

No good times like the olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us no more..

Nice. That one became,

Once again as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Will be near to us once more.
MUCH better.