Faith Works 12-20-14
Christmas 70 years past
This week marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
It was the last offensive by Nazi Germany, a final desperate attempt to force the Western Allies to sue for a negotiated peace rather than accept unconditional surrender. Adolf Hitler ordered his war-weary troops to a last massive thrust against American and British lines even as his defenses in Italy and to the east against Soviet Russia were crumbling.
Wehrmacht General von Rundstedt directed a push that created a "bulge" in the formerly solid front that the Allies had been driving steadily east from the English Channel coast towards the Rhine and ultimately the German heartland, and Berlin itself.
In truth, fuel as much as personnel doomed this last spasm of the Nazi war machine. Hitler simply didn't have the gas to fulfill his intention to get his troops from the Rhine valley to Antwerp, Belgium, cutting the Allies in half and slowing even further the advance of their armies to the defeat of Germany.
They had enough to muster a powerful, concentrated thrust that pushed in, dangerously far into Allied lines, dangerous for the German troops isolated into a salient with Americans now behind their advance on one side, and British and Canadian troops near to flanking them on the other.
And the dogged resistance at Bastogne by the 101st Airborne under Gen. Anthony McAuliffe was summed up seventy years ago Monday in his response to a flowery and threatening demand for surrender from the Nazi forces encircling him.
"To the German Commander.
The American Commander"
The junior American officer who delivered this answer had to do some colloquial re-translation for the benefit of his German counterpart. McAuliffe was a gentleman of the old school, and rarely used profanity, but a profane equivalent was soon understood.
For the next few days, the unseasonable cold of an Ardennes winter, and restrictions on fires and warmth in general, left the besieged Americans in a grim state, even as the day of Christmas crept closer. Cheer was in short supply along with food, fuel, and yes, ammunition.
I was born nearly a generation after these events, yet I grew up hearing again and again stories about Christmas Eve, 1944. From members of my church growing up, from Scoutmasters at camp, in movies shown on television in my youth, and still today I am honored to hear from a soldier of that time and place a couple of times a week in the congregation I serve, on that cold December and the days too short and nights eternal (hi, Joe!).
They shivered their way through the long dark wait, hoped as they watched the steel-grey skies by day, then felt their hearts leap when Christmas Eve day saw the skies open, the USAAF zoom in . . . and I've talked to pilots and crew of those days about the cold of the airs above Belgium, but the warmth of bombs felt even from far above, as they relieved the siege and opened up corridors for Patton's army to push the bulge back into place, and then the other direction.
You've all watched the opening scenes of the movie "White Christmas," which for years I thought of as happening in and around Bastogne. It seems that the intention of the screenplay was for Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye to serve under Dean Jagger's Gen. Waverly in the Italy campaign, but the sense was the same. It's Christmas Eve, they're far from home, they have only each other right now, but their dreams of home are the largest part of what's getting them through the fighting, the frozen nights, the fearful destruction of towns, troops, and time.
"White Christmas" came out as a bit of a novelty song by a Jewish tunesmith based in New York City but working for Hollywood. There's a whole story in the original opening stanza. But it showed up before the public just as Pearl Harbor had turned the nation's attentions from domestic concerns to foreign affairs.
The song "White Christmas" became a sign, a signal, a totem for both the homefront and those serving overseas, a good luck charm that promised a safe return. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" was an even more overt down payment on such a hope, but it was the dream of a white Christmas that kept hope alive in foxholes such as dotted the Belgium-German frontier seventy years past.
We sing it still to their memory, as much as to the statement of faith at the heart of Christmas itself.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your connections to Christmas traditions at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.