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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 7, New Delhi, January 30, 2021

Christmas Diplomacy: Peace, Prejudice & Untold Stories | R P Pradhan, Chhavi Rathi

Friday 29 January 2021

by R P Pradhan; Chhavi Rathi

Introduction

Christmas has always been a joyous festival and occasion for hope and resurrection. Christmas tree as a centre piece attraction of the occasion in its triangular shape, as per Christian belief, symbolizes trinity — the Christian concept of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit being in unison. St. Boniface converted the northern German Frankish tribes to Christianity in 8th century using a triangular shape fir tree. Evolving from here, Christmas tree and the whole celebration has evolved a great deal over time, space, regions and countries.

Christmas tree is considered a valuable gift of friendship and goodwill which even nation-states adopt as part of Christmas gesture. Christmas diplomacy both in times of peace and war however is a fascinating chapter of international politics that present curious and fascinating insight into understanding nation-states relations.
While Christmas opens up occasions, festivities and goodwill exchanges across the world, this article explores several of its untold stories and legacy to capture the Christmas diplomacy and its connotations to international politics and statecraft.

War & Christmas Peace

Both the big wars left more than 95million dead and like number wounded. In the midst of devastating WWI and WWII however, the soldier’s of war defied war orders to spontaneously celebrate Christmas even with enemies is a mesmerizing story of humanity.

In the midst of raging WWI, the guns and artilleries in the war front fell silent as Christmas arrived. In the first week of December 2014, Pope Benedict XV had appealed for temporary war hiatus for Christmas celebration. Though the warring countries refused any official ceasefire, on Christmas day, both side soldiers in the Western frontier came out of their trenches and joining with the enemies, celebrated their own unofficial truce (Bajekal, 2014).

While the historians account vary on the specifics of the unofficial truce and its extent, it is understood that nearly two-thirds of troops- about 100,000 people seem to have participated in the legendary Christmas truce of 1914 — an event of war and peace catalyzed through Christmas spirit which even continued in the subsequent years of war though at a lesser scale.

Thanks to the 2005 movie ‘Joyeux Noël’ many people now are partially familiar of the First World War unofficial truce that saw enemies conscripted to kill each other were seen singing and exchanging gifts with each other and even playing football together to welcome Christmas and its spirit of peace, friendship and joy.

Enemies & Unusual Truce in the Forest

Two types of War time Christmas truce are focused here. One truce that is historically and officially significant. The other is far too awe inspiring and impactful though less known and written about.

This is an uncommon war front Christmas truce story of fully armed enemy soldiers sharing home with each other at the thick of war- a story of Christmas empathy and victory of humanity and virtue. Battle of Bulge and 2nd World War - this one is a story of Christmas truce forced upon a handful of lost American and German soldiers in the Ardennes forest areas of Belgium, Luxemburg and France border. 

It was Dec. 24, 1944 Christmas night. Germans were raising their last war offensive. Strange as it may sound, in the thick of this last and fierce phase of hostilities, three fully armed American soldiers and equally armed four German soldiers spent the night of Christmas 1944 in a Godly German woman’s cottage in Ardennes forest which bordered Belgium, Luxemburg and France. The man of the house was away in civil-defense service and Elisabeth Vincken, and her 12 year young son Fritz lived in this cottage to escape war devastation.

Dec.24 night and three American soldiers, one of whom was badly wounded, were lost from their units during the assault and were wandering around the Ardennes forest looking for the American troops when they spotted Elisabeth Vincken’s cottage (Vincken, 1973).
Elisabeth Vincken heard knocks on her door. Blowing off the candles, Elisabeth reluctantly opened the door to see two steel-helmeted men. One of them spoke to Elisabeth in English rarely understood in this part of the world. Yet they communicated pointing to a third man lying in the snow. Elisabeth quickly realized that these were American soldiers - Enemies (Vincken, 1973)!

Holding her son Fritz, Elisabeth Vincken stood silent, motionless and without choice. They were fully armed to force their entry. Yet they stood there and asked with their eyes and gestures for help. The wounded man seemed more dead than alive while the three soldiers had been wandering in the forest for the past three days. “Kommt rein,” (come in) Elisabeth said coyly. The soldiers carried their wounded comrade inside and stretched him out.

It was divinity in grandeur. As the generous host extended basic medical aid and food to the enemies, they heard another round of knock in the door. Elisabeth opened the door thinking of more American soldiers. There stood four soldiers, wearing familiar uniforms. Lo behold, they were ‘Wehrmacht’ - Germans and sheltering enemies constituted high treason and death penalty.

Paralyzed with fear Elisabeth said, quietly, “Froehliche Weihnachten.” The soldiers wished her a Merry Christmas, too. “We have lost our regiment and would like to wait for daylight,” explained the corporal. “Can we rest here" (Vincken, 1973)?

Of course,” Elisabeth replied, with calmness and panic. The Germans smiled as they sniffed the aroma of roasted chicken through the half open door. “But,” Elisabeth added firmly, “we have three other guests, whom you may not consider friends.” Her voice choking, “this is Christmas Eve and there will be no shooting here”. “Who’s inside?” the corporal demanded. “Amerikaner?”

Elisabeth looked at frost-chilled German soldiers faces. “Listen,” she said politely. “You could be my sons, and so could they in there. A boy with a gunshot wound, fighting for his life, and his two friends, lost like you and just as hungry and exhausted as you are. This one night,” she turned to the corporal and appealed, “this Christmas night, let us forget about killing.”

The corporal stared at her. There were endless moments of silence. Ending the indecision Elisabeth quipped - “Enough talking!” “Please put your weapons here on the woodpile and hurry up before the others eat up the dinner!

It would be a rare Christmas in world history. War regime and armed to the teeth, the enemies and their kind host spent the strange Christmas night together. At the time of departing next morning, the German soldiers even guided their American enemies’ direction so that they can avoid enemy lines - a story of Christmas peace that even pales the best of official peace diplomacy (Vincken, 1973).

North American Christmas Tryst

Given the popularity and religious significance of Christmas, it may seem that the people in USA have always celebrated Christmas. It’s not true. Christmas as we see today is an evolution in the American socio-political structure. Thanks to the puritan and reformist movement within Christianity, in the 16th-17th century Christmas holiday was actually banned in great parts of America for several decades (Melina, 2010). While Massachusetts Bay Colony went a step forward to consider it heresy and impose a 5 shilling fine on practicing Christmas, Boston banned Christmas during 1659-1681. Irrespective of official position however, British colonies in North America and areas with larger puritan population continued to frown upon the practice throughout the 18th and even parts of the 19th century (Aneculaesei, 2020).

George Washington’s Christmas Luck

Two Christmas events in American history - Christmas 1776 and Christmas 1783 need notable mention. With a dream in mind, General George Washington’s Continental Army crossed the Delaware River and entered New Jersey to lay the critical foundation of American War of Independence on December 25, 1776. The American ‘War of Independence’ was the central and most consequential event in George Washington’s life. In May 1975, the revolutionaries ‘Second Continental Congress’ appointed Washington to create a ‘Continental Army’ and lead the revolution against the British. Beginning from here at the age of 43, Washington moved out of his Mount Vernon estate in May 1775 on a dream to pursue and strategize a New World free of British colonial laws and whims that took him over eight years and endless war gruels to achieve and then return home victorious on Christmas Eve 1783. Christmas 1776 and Christmas 1783 - a period of eight years was most crucial for Washington and American political history.

The future of the fledgling republic under the leadership of young Washington was hanging in absolute uncertainty. British had successfully repelled the Continental Army from New York and New Jersey leaving Washington’s forces shrinking and with low morale (Leutze, 2019). They needed some good news and turn around to keep the forces together.

Delaware River crossing on Christmas night 1776 proved exactly what Washington was looking forward to. Washington’s troops mounted the most decisive and strategic attack next morning taking the Hessian forces (German troops hired by the British) stationed at Trenton, New Jersey into complete disarray. It was the first major victory for Washington and his Continental Army. They took 900 Hessians captive and large cache of arms and supplies that boost the prospect of American independence (Leutze, 2019).

Painters, writers, historians and the politico-social life of modern America eulogize this historic event and celebrate the iconic achievement alongside Christmas celebrations. George Washington emerged hero and Continental Army regained the most needed morale which finally drove the British away from the thirteen British-American colonial possessions.

George Washington’s 1783 Christmas Eve return home after accomplishing the great task of American Independence is nothing less than an epic in American literature, political history and continental landscape. Task accomplished and now Washington wished to hang his boots and retire from public life the news of which saddened every American.

Crossing the Hudson River from New York on Dec. 4, 1783, Washington began his farewell journey home riding through villages and towns in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland while rousing receptions, banquets and balls awaited him along the way (Weintraub, 2004).

On December 23, 1783, Washington’s farewell address at the Maryland Old Senate Chamber was a solemn occasion. Bowing before the Congress, Washington spoke with equanimity and declared his retirement from military commission.

Noting the solemnity of the occasion, Maryland Congressman James McHenry remarked “... and there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears” (Pforzheimer, 1783). Continental Congress president Thomas Mifflin lauded the hero saying, “the glory of your virtues will not terminate with your military command... it will continue to animate the remotest ages. You have defended the standard of liberty in this new world" (Weintraub, 2004). Throughout the former colonies, newspapers reported the remarkable events. New Hampshire Gazette closed its report observing, "Here we must let fall the scene," and as reported, "Few tragedies ever drew more tears" (Weintraub, 2004).

Given the contemporary colonial atmosphere, kings, nobility and royalty were the prevalent order all over the world. General Washington could well have been a king in America had he so chosen. Examples of relinquishing power at the peak of popularity are rare in world history. On the contrary, Julius Caesar, William Cromwell and Napoleon Bonaparte are examples of those who seized power at similar opportune moment. One similar precedent of rejecting power was in ancient Rome when Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus gave up his power on two separate occasions to become a simple farmer. In 1783, Washington exactly did the same and became the American Cincinnatus (Maloy, 2020).

Noting the political implication of Washington’s decision, King George III in Britain remarked that if Washington gave up his power, “he will be the greatest man in the world” (Weintraub, 2004). Washington’s emotional farewell to his Continental Army on the Christmas Eve 1783 is legendry that also catapulted Christmas to American centre-stage political space (Horn, 2011). North America celebrated the most significant Christmas in American history ever (Weintraub, 2004).

Washington gracefully crossed Potomac River on Dec 24 to join his family at Mount Vernon. From power and national glory, Washington opted to be a good family man and farmer leaving his 1776 and 1783 Christmas holy tryst to be national tale for generations.

North Korean ICBM Christmas Gift!

In 2019, Kim Jong Un- the North Korean Supreme leader issued a warning to the United States. As widely reported in US, Japan and South Korean media; North Korea threatened a nuclear or ICBM test as a ‘Christmas Gift’ to the United States (Isozaki, 2020). While the veracity of the news is debated, given the free style threat North Korea unleashes on all its adversaries, it was taken as yet another Pyongyang’s intimidation tactics.
North Korea’s former maximum leader Kim Jong-Il’s death was announced by the Korean state television on 19 December 2011. Days away from Christmas, the communist North strongly objected to the South Korean church groups’ plan to display lights on military controlled three towers hills near the border area calling it as psychological warfare (Reuters, 2011). Even before Kim Jong IL’s death, Pyongyang periodically had warned of unexpected consequences and retaliation if Seoul displayed Christmas lights.

The hills are within three kilometers of the frontier region and well within North Korea’s gunfire range. In 2004, both the Koreas had worked out a deal to halt official level cross border propaganda. As a matter of peace prospect, South Korea even stopped its annual Christmas border illuminations that represent peace, friendship and prosperity as well as the celebration of a religious festival.

South Korea however, resumed the display next December after a shelling attack by the North on a border island that killed four South Korean civilians in the previous month (Reuters, 2011).

Strange Christmas: Panama 1989

Panama City, 1989 Christmas - Lisa Versayo who lived in the working class neighborhood of San Miguelito- a city and district town of Panamá, sadly observed “We’re not in favor of anyone saying Merry Christmas because there is nothing merry about it this year” adding “a lot of people have died who didn’t have to die” (Otis, 1989).
In the wee hours of December 20, 1989, some 27,684 American troops and over 300 aircrafts (Glass, 2018) invaded Panama that left more than 3500 Panamanians dead. The capital city looked so badly demolished that locals even compared the ruin to Hiroshima (Walters, 2017).

President George Bush Sr. dubbed the American invasion in Panama ‘Operation Just Cause’. The American soldiers invaded Panama from all directions- land, water and air that overwhelmed the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) into submission (Schwaller, 2008). It was the largest American invasion since Vietnam (D’Haeseleer, 2019 ). Americans wanted capture Panama’s military dictator General Manuel Antonio Noriega who was indicted in the U.S for drug trafficking, money laundering and several other charges (Glass, 2018).

On the fifth day of real fight in the garrisons and in the streets of Panama City, Noriega quietly escaped to asylum in the Vatican Papal Nuncio in Panama City. A foreign embassy is considered the sovereign territory under international law and can’t be violated. Additionally, centuries of catholic tradition beckons that church will not expel anyone who seeks its sanctuary. Interestingly, the Vatican embassy was critical of Noriega providing refuge to his opponents before Washington’s invasion, now it was a delicate situation in Panama (Phillips, 1989).

Throughout 20th century, Panama suffered humiliation of American highhandedness in their country.The Panama Canal is a maritime strategic corridor that connects Pacific and Atlantic Ocean to integrate the world through international seaborne trade and commerce. However, Panama Canal remained a troubled facet of US-Panama relation. Washington had nearly occupied the strategic waterway through 1903 Canal Treaty that Panamanians feel was violative in all counts. Spreading over 2% land surface of Panama right in the middle of the country, the Canal divided Panama into two halves. American flag flying high atop the Canal Zone right in the middle of Panama, it simply symbolized Panama of tolerating a foreign nation within their nation and national pride (Alstyne, 1980).

Christmas Musical Terror: American Way

With due respect to international law and diplomatic protocol, the American soldiers didn’t enter the Vatican embassy. Rather they resorted to something more bizarre.
As though the unilateral military invasion of Panama was not enough humiliation, soon after Noriega escaped to Vatican embassy, the American soldiers encircled the embassy and concocted a plan to smoke out Noriega from his safe hide. They quickly put together a 24/7 orchestra around the embassy playing loud and heavy metallic and rock music with few ballads in the middle. All the loud speakers facing the embassy and their inmates, deafening volumes round the clock, it was a display of huge American vulgarity and musical terror that finally forced Noriega to surrender on 3rd January 1990 (Myre, 2017).

While Noriega was flown to Miami and later handed a 40 year prison term, Panama had seen enough of American hegemony throughout the century and this made the worst Christmas the tiny Central American republic can ever forget.

Christmas tree: Oslo to London

It’s a tradition running for the last over eight decades. Since 1947, the City of Oslo officially gifts a large Christmas tree to London every year which then gets well decorated and placed at the Trafalgar Square, central London beginning from the first Thursday of December onwards. Apart from Christmas goodwill exchange between Norway and Britain and the orchestrated festivities that gather around the Trafalgar square, Norwegian Christmas tree gift serves as an occasion of friendly history revisited and soft power diplomacy celebrated (Magra, 2019). It is a ‘thanks giving’ etiquette that binds the people of Norway to the Londoners for the last over eighty years.

During WWII, soon after Nazi invasion of Norway, Norwegian King Haakon VII escaped to London. King Haakon received asylum and political support in London. Oslo’s annual Christmas tree gift to Londoners since 1947 is therefore a Norwegian thank-you gift to Britain to commemorate Britain’s help during WWII and the gesture renews both nations friendship year after year (Magra, 2019).

Moscow’s Christmas Gift: Dilemma in Paris & Sophia

On Dec. 24, 2014, the Cash-strapped Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris received a surprise gift from Moscow - a gigantic Christmas tree delivered by Russia’s ambassador to France Alexandre Orlov. Moscow paid a whopping €80,000 to transport the mammoth pine tree across Europe to the French capital and Ambassador Alexandre Orlov proudly announced that the tree is a message of peace ( Associated Press, 2014).
The ‘peace tree’ however raised enough political and diplomatic eyebrows in Paris. Russian-French ties are strained over Moscow’s occupation of Crimea, Ukraine. Due to economic sanctions over Ukraine, Paris had delayed delivery of two helicopter carrier ships to Moscow ordered some four years ago (AFP, 2014). It is in this climate of suspicion; Moscow’s Christmas tree diplomacy with Paris couldn’t be free of layers of controversy and dilemma for Paris.

Russia is known for conspicuous Christmas gift as soft power diplomacy. Moscow gifted a Christmas tree in 2018 to Bulgaria which was installed at St Nedelya Square, centre of Capital city Sofia. Instead of friendship and goodwill exchange, Moscow’s benign gift however, opened up Bulgaria’s historical wounds unleashing virtual war in social media to street protests and diplomatic offensives that divided Bulgaria to no end.

Bulgarian activists and social media quickly identified the gift as Kremlin’s propaganda and organized protests next to the tree. Some were troubled that red stars featured among the ornaments, reminding of the communist USSR symbol. Some others disapproved the location of the tree at St Nedelya Square which had witnessed a horrifying terror attack by Bulgaria’s communist party way back in 1925 (Vassileva, 2019). Bulgarian supporters of Ukraine staged a flash protest and mischievously decorated the tree with paper ships to highlight Ukrainian sailors kept in Russian captivity and much more (Vassileva, 2019).

Conclusion

Diplomacy looks for opportunity and occasions. Soviet Union prohibited Christmas trees soon after the Bolshevik revolution till 1954. Moscow today uses Christmas tree as a tool of diplomacy for fence mending. FARC and drug ridden Colombia, meanwhile, is home to perhaps the most meaningful manifestation of the Christmas truce. Along with peace talks with FARC (Colombia’s Left Wing Extremists), Colombian government started a novel way of lighting the FARC controlled jungles with a slogan, "If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home" which finally fructified leading to FARC surrendering arms to UNO inspectors in 2016.

Emotion in international politics has a great role and impact. Having lost 2020 to pandemic and numerous conflicts, let historical lessons of Christmas diplomacy serve us well to reflect on our conflicts and manage them with sobriety and wisdom.

Works Cited:

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AFP. (2014). Russia’s Christmas gift to Paris raises eyebrows. The Local France. Retrieved from https://www.thelocal.fr/20141127/russia-paris-christmas-tree-notre-dame-present-france
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(Authors:

RP Pradhan is a PhD in International Relations and an Associate Professor at the Dept. of Humanities & Social Sciences, BITS Pilani KK Birla Goa Campus, Goa, India. Prof. Pradhan also serves as a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR), Email: rppradhan[at]goa.bits-pilani.ac.in

Lt. Cdr Chhavi Rathi is a former Indian Navy Officer and currently a Doctoral candidate at the Dept. of Humanities & Social Sciences, BITS Pilani KK Birla Goa Campus, Goa, India Email: p20150001[at]goa.bits-pilani.ac.in )

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