Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Silent Christmas and Sainsbury's

The poems of WWI continue to resonate with us today because they speak to human feelings and experiences that transcend time.  Diana Gurney’s poem “The Fallen” reminds us that holidays often highlight emptiness;  we see the vacant place at the table, we fail to hear the familiar voice, we miss the loved ones we have lost. 

Our grief is often awash in uncertainty, and that’s where this short poem begins -- with a question and with the heart-wrenching admission “We do not know.”  The speaker of the poem seems paralyzed with sadness, unsure even about laying a holly wreath on the grave of “The Fallen” (holly is not only associated with festive cheer, but also with defense and domestic happiness).  There are no big actions here, only “a breath/Of our remembering.”  The dead are also quiet, and the poem is suffused in stillness.  Instead of the musical notes of “Silent Night,” we hear only a “Silent Christmas.” 

 The Fallen by Diana Gurney

Shall we not lay our holly wreath
Here at the foot of this high cross?
We do not know, perhaps a breath
Of our remembering may come
To them at last where they are sleeping,
They are quiet, they are dumb,
No more of mirth, no more of weeping,
Silent Christmas they are keeping;
Ours the sorrow, ours the loss.

What is the appropriate response to loss and war at Christmas time? The British grocery chain Sainsbury's has generated a lot of controversy with their Christmas ad that remembers the 1914 Christmas truce.  Some have accused the ad of being exploitative and tasteless, using “millions of deaths” to sell wrapping paper and frozen food (here’s a critique that appeared in the The Telegraph).  Others say the ad is a poignant and moving tribute that also reminds us of soldiers today who won’t be home for Christmas (here's an example from the Daily Express).  How to remember war?  Some say that we shouldn’t even be using the word “commemoration,” but instead refer to “centenary events.”

If you don’t like your history and remembrance served up by a supermarket, I recommend the film Joyeux Noel – or just take a moment out of the holiday bustle for silence and stillness as Diana Gurney’s “The Fallen” suggests.