Archive for Sunday, December 20, 1998


December 20, 1998


As Christmastime approached I dug into my files and memories and came up with some historical things that suggest the yuletide is not just Santa Claus, stockings, jingling bells on bobsleds, poinsettias and occasional reminders of what the holiday should be about. And this year we have that nice present the Republicans have given the Clinton family and some other Americans, something we'll always have about Christmas 1998.

I start with the Rev. Phillips Brooks, riding horseback in the hills of the Holy Land in 1865. Brooks was moved by the beauty of the night, the wind off the hills, the little town of Bethlehem below him. Three years later he wrote a poem for his Sunday School classes in Philadelphia, and the words were set to music by his organist. And a choir of teachers and children sang the now greatly loved "O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie."

Christmas in other times: In 1964, we were fighting in Vietnam, and on Christmas an explosion shattered windows in a five-block radius in Saigon. Two hundred pounds of plastic were planted by the Viet Cong. Two people were killed and 107 wounded.

Back further in history, Christmas l776: The boats of Gen. George Washington crossed the Delaware River, and soon the Hessian garrison at Trenton, N.J., was attacked. Lt. James Monroe led the 320th Virginia Regiment, and there was victory without a shot fired.

Christmas night, 1861, and President Abraham Lincoln paced as a Congressional committee debated whether Lincoln's wife, Mary, was a security risk. Mrs. Lincoln had a brother and three half-brothers in Confederate uniforms. A sister was married to a brigadier general. In a White House room Willie Lincoln, 10, lay dying of a fever. Union forces lost at Bull Run in the summer, and the Army of the Potomac was still to do much fighting.

And to Yuletide, 1917. Battalions of the First Infantry Division were stretched along the Marne-Rhine canal in France. Two companies went down the road and put up a Christmas tree in the town of Gondrecourt and passed out candy to French children. On the way back German artillery battered the returning men.

World War II, 1944. On Christmas Day, skies cleared over the village of Bastogne, Belgium. The Luftwaffe dropped bombs on the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division. Those soldiers had held out against three German divisions. Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe had said "Nuts" to a German offer of surrender. Soon the Battle of the Bulge would be one of the most memorable names in the history of warfare.

Next, 1950, Christmas. A Navy reconnaissance plane from the carrier Princeton flew over a line of ships in the Sea of Japan. The pilot sent a "Merry Christmas" message to an American destroyer. The port city of Hungnam had been abandoned, and President Harry Truman acknowledged the finest Christmas present he had ever received.

In 1953 Associated Press newsmen filed a story from the Holy Land. They wrote that "Joseph and Mary would face death if they tried to journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem. Sliced through the gray hills of fertile plains of Palestine is a no man's land between Israel and Jordan, filled with mine fields, rusted barbed wire, and the rubble of wrecked buildings."

Back to Christmas, 1941. It is only a few days since the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And Christmas, 1942, the worst year of the war. That autumn people were singing and hearing a song that came out in a movie called "Holiday Inn," and the song became a statement for war-weary Americans. "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know."

And a Christmas in the 1970s. Mike Royko, then of the Chicago Daily News, wrote a column that was picked up and read by ministers and reprinted all over. It was about a couple, Mary and Joe, who hit Chicago flat broke. Mary was pregnant. They couldn't find a place to sleep because they were flat broke. The welfare office sent them to a county hospital, where Mary had her baby. Three strange-looking foreigners showed up, but they were hauled away by narcotics investigators. Joe couldn't get a job, and Mary also, but they finally left town, headed for southern Illinois, "little Egypt." The three foreigners were still unable to reach them, and officers picked up the three for illegally possessing gold.

-- Calder Pickett is a professor emeritus of journalism at Kansas University. His columns appear Sundays in the Journal-World.

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