The Christmas Truce

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German soldiers in trench, WWI.

Nearly one hundred years ago today, in the midst of the first months of a brutal world war that would claim the lives of millions across the globe, enemies from powerful armies came together, sang Christmas carols, and purportedly even played ball.

The extension of peace started on Christmas Eve 1914. German and British troops sang to each other across the war-torn No Man’s Land, a bombed-out stretch of barbed wire-tangled space that separated the trenches of the opposing sides. German soldiers placed Christmas trees illuminated by lanterns above the trenches. Men called out to each other and exchanged Christmas greetings.

On Christmas morning, Allied and German soldiers crept out of their respective trenches, met each other in the middle, shook hands, and traded cigarettes and food. The dead were fetched from No Man’s Land and taken away for proper burials. Conversations were exchanged. No shots were fired.

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Poster for The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2014 play The Christmas Truce.

Not all regions of the war celebrated the truce. War-related deaths continued to occur on December 25, 1914, but several truces occurred across the Western Front in a moving moment that’s now been celebrated in films, books, documentaries, plays, and even a 2014 British grocery store commercial.

The truce didn’t end the Great War. The goodwill spread among the opposing armed forces on that remarkable day would not be repeated during the following three Christmases spent at war. Yet the beauty of the camaraderie between these enemies—the sheer joy experienced by people moved by the holiday spirit—proves that no matter how horrific our history may be at times, joy and hope will never cease to exist.

Happy holidays.

More info about the Christmas Truce:

ChristmasTruce.co.uk (includes letters from soldiers who participated)

History.com – Christmas Truce of 1914

Imperial War Museums – The Real Story of the Christmas Truce

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Shooting at the Stars, by John Hendrix (a new picture book about the truce)

Trailer for The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2014 performance of The Christmas Truce.

The 2014 Sainsbury grocery store advertisement celebrating the truce.

The trailer for Joyeux Noel, a 2005 movie made about the truce.

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What Is Historical?

The year I started writing for young people, I attended my first international SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in Los Angeles.  Four days of writing craft, page critiques, networking and an overwhelming amount of information.  So I almost missed it when an agent, talking about her client’s work, mentioned that it was a novel of historical fiction, set in the 1970s.

Most of the audience gasped, because most of us had lived through the 70s, making it difficult to believe it could be considered history.  As an aspiring author of historical fiction, I had to reset my understanding.  And I continue to do so as I read new books and think about future projects.

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The first thing I did was put myself back in the shoes of my younger self.  As a teen, I considered the Vietnam War to be history.  When I was Platoon, it was as a work of historical fiction.  And yet, I was six years old when Saigon fell.  By that calculation, a novel published today about the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 could be considered historical by modern teenagers.

Imagine that.

As writers of historical fiction, we are so incredibly fortunate in the richness and scope of our source material.  We can immerse ourselves in ancient Egypt, imagine life amongst the princes of Renaissance Europe or, possibly, write an autobiographically-based novel of our own childhood.  (That is, if your childhood was more interesting than mine.  I had a spectacularly bland and uneventful childhood, full of love and well-being.  Great to live through, but not so interesting to read!)

However, part of me still balks at the thought of writing (or reading) something historical that is set during my own lifetime.  I have a nagging feeling that there are agents and editors out there who might feel the same way.  While I was writing Gilt, I attended a workshop where an agent mentioned that she never wanted to see another query about a book set in the 1980s, because it usually meant that the author wanted to reference her favorite music and was too lazy to figure out how to put cell phones into the narrative.

I bet no one said that to Rainbow Rowell about Eleanor & Park.

Which brings me to my second point–that great historical fiction reads like a contemporary story.  I don’t mean that an author should use anachronistic language and dialogue, or that the story itself should be applicable to any time period (you can’t write a story like Number the Stars set in modern-day California).  What I mean is that characters and their interactions are timeless.  People fought with their siblings and fell in love during the American Civil War in much the same way we do now–which is one of the reasons Little Women is so endlessly beloved.  You can’t take the war out of the story, but we can see ourselves within the people who inhabit it.

One final example:  my favorite book when I was in the third grade was a novel called Amy Moves In, by Marilyn Sachs.  It’s about a short, skinny girl with super curly/frizzy hair, whose older sister is smarter, taller, braver and has (holiest of holies) straight hair.

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I could totally relate.

Amy moved to the Bronx, had adventures, fought with her sister, made friends.  That book made me desperate to go to New York.  I read it–and its companions–more times than I could count. Many thanks to the Scholastic Book Club for putting them in my hands.

What I didn’t realize until much later was that the books were originally published before I was born and set in the 1940s.  They were–by all accounts–historical.  They never felt that way.  I always imagined that I could go to the Bronx, find Indian Rock in Crotona Park, and share a chocolate egg cream with Amy or someone just like her.

Readers want to be able to relate to fictional characters, even if they can’t always relate to the setting–be it medieval Wales or post-apocalyptic Chicago.  So we, as writers, have to make our characters believable as people and not just as people from the past.

Think about some of your favorite fictional characters from historical fiction.  What is it that makes you feel like you know them?  And does that work today as well as it works in their own era?

On the Calendar

It’s time to do the holidays, medieval and early-modern style!

Calendar customs are rituals or activities historically practiced on a given day, typically associated with a saint but sometimes a key point in the agricultural year or some other event. Here’s a selection from December:

2014-12-1 Boy Bishop6 December: Saint Nicholas’ Day. The election of the “boy bishop.” Choristers (boys* in the choir) would elect one of their number to be the boy bishop, a kid who would run all official religious ceremonies till Holy Innocents Day (28 December). The Boy Bishop appointed his friends to serve as high officials in the church (the dean, the canons). For all intents and purposes, he and his friends were in charge. Adults would take on all the kids’ roles (acolytes, altar boys), and would sometimes heckle the kids who were trying to conduct services properly. It was basically three weeks of fun, treats, holidays, and general misrule, and it often got pretty rowdy.

16 December: The Bringing in of the Boar’s Head. This tradition is mostly confined to great houses and universities, where the head of a boar is brought in to a dining table beautifully decorated with herbs and fruit while the Boar’s Head Carol is sung. Its origin story goes like this: an Oxford university student was walking through the forest when he was attacked by a boar. He fought it off by cramming his copy of Aristotle in the boar’s mouth, choking it to death.

C'mon, Rufus Sewell...

C’mon, Rufus Sewell…

20 December: Saint Thomas’ Eve. If you stuck an onion full of pins and put it under your pillow, you’d dream of your future husband.

21 December: Saint Thomas’ Day. Poor people in a village, usually women and children, would go a-Thomasing. This was a bit like trick-or-treating from house to house, but they’d be offered a fixed amount of a specific thing (a candle, a cupful of flour). The idea was that they would collect provisions to help them live through winter. This tradition was also called gooding.

28 December: Holy Innocents Day. This holiday commemorates the Biblical story of King Herod having all male babies in his lands slaughtered as he tried to kill off the infant Christ. On this day, adults would fast and do nothing (especially not housework), but kids could do pretty much whatever they wanted. They had treats and went to parties and could play in church, but they were also beaten to remind them of Herod’s cruelty. Being a kid in medieval and early-modern times could be confusing.

* Yes, just boys. Sorry. They hadn’t gotten the memo yet.

From A.R. Wright’s British Calendar Customs (Folklore Society: London, 1940).