Saturday, 24 December 2011

Merry Christmas from the Idle Historian

After Christmas decorations have begun appearing in shops in October, and one hears "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in November, it is easy to lament the early onslaught of forced holiday cheer. Yet the final event somehow still tends to come upon one rather quickly. Many of our cherished Christmas traditions are, as we know, of rather recent invention. Quite a few were popularized by the Victorians - Christmas trees (hailing from Germany, introduced to England by Prince Albert), greeting cards, decorations, and the extention of charity and a general feeling of goodwill. I recently, however, found an intriguing video on the BBC by an art historian - Dr. Spike Bucklow - on how the colours green and red came to be associated with Christmas. Long thought to have been one of the inventions of the Victorians, he believes that their roots actually lie in the Medieval period. Our traditions, like our carols, are a curious blend of both the ancient and modern.

 [An Image of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their elder children
around a Christmas tree.]

The idea of a benevolent "spirit" with which one should enter the holidays is, perhaps, of a more recent vintage. Prior to the Victorian period, Christmas was but one of many religious holidays. It may have retained a special religious characteristic that set it apart from other Saint's days and the like, but I don't believe that there was the individual expectation of a merry disposition that we have come to expect. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol did much to perpetuate this notion, setting out a stark dichotomy between the Scrooges and the jolly Fezziwigs of the world. The truth is that most of us lie somewhere in the middle - approaching the Christmas season with our own unique bundle of good wishes and simultaneous uncertainties weighing on our mind. But the longing for expressions of the superlative Christmas experience seems universal. Last year I wrote about the mythology of the "Christmas Truce" of 1914 along the trenches of the Western Front.

A blogger should possibly refrain from quoting themselves in subsequent posts, but somehow this snippet from last year again seems appropriate:

We sympathize with the desolation of the soldiers - far from home, cold, lonely, uncertain of whether this may prove to be their last Christmas, suddenly aware (as we all become after a great crisis, loss, or change has taken us unaware) of all the normal Christmases with our loved ones that we took for granted. We can imagine their hesitation and uncertainty at crossing the battle lines, not knowing if they were walking into a trap. We may sense their longing to fully trust the promises of friendship of their fellow human beings. It must have been the conundrum of daily life writ large - the courage required to present ourselves as genuine and vulnerable to our fellow human beings with the hope that we will meet with genuine friendship in return, while simultaneously braving the possibility that we might not be.

A very Merry Christmas to all my readers from the Idle Historian, and always remember the classic line from the film It's A Wonderful Life:

"No Man is a Failure Who Has Friends"

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

December 6th: Itsenäisyyspäivä - Finnish Independence Day

And now for something completely different. The entries on this blog consist mostly of artifacts from British history, the speciality of the Idle Historian. But yours truly is also, improbably, half-Finnish, and as such Finnish holidays and traditions - though distant - form an important element of family memory.

Today, 6 December, is Itsenäisyyspäivä. The first Finnish Independence Day was celebrated in 1919. The first half of the twentieth century was marked by tumult and warfare for the the people of Finland. Finns are reluctant warriors but have a natural ability for it, sometimes frighteningly so. It is indicative that the highest confirmed sniper kill (505) in any major war belongs not to a trained special forces operative, but to a Finnish farmer, Simo Häyhä, who was nicknamed the "White Death" during the five month Winter War against the Soviet army (1939-1940). Self-trained as a marksman, following the war he claimed to want nothing more than to return to his farm and that his wartime accomplishments were merely a necessary duty.

The Winter War is full of mythology and still exerts a palpable influence on Finnish society. I have recently been following @RealTimeWWII on twitter - a project "live-tweeting" major events of the Second World War on the day they occurred, beginning in 1939 (as of this autumn) and with plans to continue for six years hence (!) Recently the feed has been filled with snippets from the first week of the Soviet invasion of Finland (a few selections in truncated twitter format):

The poignantly naive: "New Finnish government has appealed to the League of Nations to protect them from Russian aggression." (good luck with that)

The reflections of an enlisted man: "Kalevi Juntunen, Finnish soldier: 'We can only retreat. There is too little snow & Russians are as mobile as us. Our entire unit is 40 men.'"And the opposite sentiment from an officer: "[Col] Talvela: 'We must attack, no retreat. A Finnish soldier is better on the offense; it helps his sisu' [Finnish term for guts/spirit]."

The intense nature of the Finnish resistance: "Finns booby-trapping land as they retreat: floating mines tethered underneath frozen lakes, to smash ice as Soviet troops & tanks cross." "Villages have been filled with landmines, with detonators set under toilet seats, doorways & beds. Wells poisoned or fouled with sewage."

And, a slightly macabre sense of humour. The Finns, in fact, coined the term "Molotov cocktail." It stemmed from Finnish incredulity at the Russian foreign minister's claims that cluster bombs being dropped from Soviet aircraft were in fact packages of food for the Finns. The bombs were nicknamed a "Molotov Bread Basket" and the Finnish response was the Molotov cocktail: "As they smash bottle on tank's cooling vents (liquid drips in, setting fire to ammo/crew) Finns yell: 'Here's a drink to go with the bread!'"

[A "Molotov Bread Basket"]

But war, thankfully, is receding into the past, although modern Finns continue to prize military preparedness as a national value. Subsequent generations of Finns have used the benefits of peace and hard-won independence to build a quietly sensible society, based on equality and mutual assistance. Many Finnish families light two candles in the window on Independence Day, a symbol of past resistance to oppression, and a quiet reflection on the Finnish spirit of never giving up. It illuminates the winter darkness with an acknowledgement that we are all a complex amalgam of our ancestry and our present. While it may be counterproductive to unnecessarily dwell on the past, it is important to remember it.

Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivää to Finns everywhere.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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