“Okay, I’m just spit-balling here, but what if we organized some type of Secret Santa?”- the rather feckless Lt. Cecil Farnsworth to his commanding officers during World War I, shortly after combat with the Germans was unofficially suspended in the famous “Christmas Truce.”
Cecil Farnsworth had been an only child, and with no siblings to compete for the affection of his parents he had enjoyed a rather privileged, sheltered childhood, especially when the holidays came around and he was spoiled with presents. But Cecil, if perhaps entitled, was also very generous, wishing to share the gift of Christmas with those around him. And it was this benevolent spirit, long engendered within him, that led to his naïve, entirely inappropriate question in the brief intermission of an otherwise savage battle.
But before we proceed, let us not overlook the truly miraculous nature of the events that led young Cecil to overstep his bounds. Various accounts confirm to us what would otherwise be unbelievable: candles were placed on the trenches, Christmas trees were planted, and German and English soldiers emerged from the trenches to exchange holiday greetings and cigarettes, even indulging in a brief football match. And so it might seem, and certainly seemed to Cecil, that a Secret Santa wasn’t that outrageous of a suggestion.
Of course, it was to some extent an anachronistic one; in those days the tradition of Secret Santa did not enjoy even the limited popularity it holds today, and assuredly resided on the respective fringes of the British and German societies. Additionally, the furious Gen. Horace Smith-Dorrien (whose mustache was already knotted at the very existence of the ceasefire) rather viciously pointed out, after hearing Farnsworth’s stuttering explanation of the concept, that in addition to the impossibility of acquiring thoughtful gifts, no one from either side knew one another, so some type of joint Secret Santa had absolutely no meaning.
As one might imagine, however, Cecil was not the only one whose bright-eyed optimism withstood the steadfast cruelty of war. In fact, to many historians the events of the Christmas Truce represent the underlying common good of all mankind—British and German alike, in this case. And as it happened, deep in the German trenches, a cheery fellow, new to the ranks having only recently recovered from a protracted bout of the whooping cough, made a similarly extraordinary suggestion. His name was Dieter Austerlitz, and before the war he had been a beloved blinschmacher (a pastry chef specializing in blintzes) in his hometown of Gundendorf, a village itself renowned for its famous blintzes. It seemed quite reasonable to Dieter that the trenches, if not being used for shelter, might make a rather suitable blinschensraum in which he could bake his wildly popular pear blintzes topped with gorgonzola.
Unfortunately for Dieter, the German leaders were even more outraged than their British counterparts at the idea of fraternization with the enemy, almost certainly due to the cold, rigid leadership of the humorously named but decidedly humorless Gen. Freiderich Freiherr Kress von Kressentein. As punishment for his attempts to bake for the enemy, Dieter was led to the General, known among the troops as “Das Doppeleffe-Doppelkah” and sentenced to three months of hard labor in the stockade, which eventually cost him the use of his primary blinschenhand.
Although it would be nice to discover that Cecil and Dieter became friends during this time, there is no historical record of them ever having met, and though we may recount history, we unfortunately cannot change it.
While the “Christmas Truce” is often fondly looked upon as a triumph of the human spirit in trying times, we must not forget that the highly romanticized storybook versions of these events cannot undo the suffering that occurred during this time—the quirky, personalized gifts that were never given, the guessing as to who might have drawn your name from the hat that never transpired, and the masses of unshaped dough that never blossomed into elegant wartime pastries.
So next time you think you can count all your blessings on the fingers of one blinschenhand, think of the persistent optimism of Cecil Farnsworth and Dieter Austerlitz, and live every day as if it were Christmas (preferably in some type of combat context).
History may repeat itself, but that doesn’t mean I have to, although I did say that last week. Tune in next YEAR for an all-new “This Day in Revisionist History!”