Thursday, December 14, 2017

Red Christmas

“On both sides in 1915 there would be more dead on any single day than yards gained in the entire year.  And there would be nearly four more years of attrition—not to determine who was right, but who was left.” 
              - Stanley Weintraub, Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914

As Christmas of 1915 approached, military authorities on both sides did everything in their power to prevent a repeat of the previous year’s unofficial Christmas truce, during which soldiers had met in No Man’s Land to swap gifts and cigarettes, bury their dead, and play a game of football.  In December of 1915, the British high command ordered “nothing of the kind is be allowed this year,” while Germans were warned that any attempts to fraternize with the enemy would “result in execution.” And yet in France at Laventie, British and German soldiers defied orders and met in No Man’s Land to exchange souvenirs, sing carols, and bury the dead.* It was an isolated occurrence.

Harefield Hospital, London, Christmas 1915
In England, darkened cities lived under blackout orders and in fear of Zeppelin raids; hospitals were filled with the wounded of Gallipoli and the Western Front, and many had put aside their gay apparel and donned black in mourning for those who would never return. 

On Christmas Day of 1915, the London Spectator published a poem written by William Henry Draper, the rector of Adel’s parish church near Leeds.  Draper’s four sons were fighting in the war.  His second son, Captain Roger Francis Draper, had been killed at Sulva Bay on August 21st, just four months earlier. 

The Red Christmas

“In these days even our wedding bells ring with sombre and muffled sound.”
            —Mr. Asquith, in the Speaker's Library, November 25, 1915

O take away the mistletoe
And bring the holly berry,

For all the lads are gone away
And all the girls look sad to-day,
There's no one left with them to play,
And only birds and babes and things unknowing
Dare be merry.
Then take away the mistletoe
And bring the holly berry.
Roger Francis Draper
 IWM Lives of the First World War

But oh its leaves are fresh and green,

Why bring the holly berry?
Because it wears the red, red hue,
The colour to the season true,
When war must have his tribute due,
And only birds and babes and things unknowing
Can be merry.
So take away the mistletoe,

Yet keep the holly berry.

And shall we never see again

Aught but the holly berry?
Yes, after sacrifice sublime,
When rings some later Christmas chime,
When dawns the new and better time,
Not only birds and babes and things unknowing
Shall be merry,

But you shall see the mistletoe
Twined with the holly berry.
            —W.H. Draper

How does one celebrate Christmas while experiencing world-shattering grief?  The poem’s title, “Red Christmas,” suggests a holiday awash in blood.  Mistletoe—associated with love and laughter, luck and vitality—is banished.  But “bring the holly berry,” the scarlet fruit, like poppies, associated with the dead of the war.

Known in Scandinavia as “Christ’s Thorn,” the holly of Christmas also recalls Christ’s suffering and death. Its prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns, and its red berries symbolize drops of Jesus’s blood. The evergreen holly is a vivid reminder of sacrifice even as it decks the halls to celebrate a miraculous birth.  In the midst of present darkness, the poem looks forward to a time when “after sacrifice sublime,” a “new and better time” will dawn. 

Adel St. John's WWI Memorial
That time was far distant for W.H. Draper. His eldest son, Second Lieutenant Mark Denman Draper, was killed in an airplane accident on February 7, 1917, and his third son, Lieutenant William Penrhyn Bodington Draper, died on May 15, 1918 from wounds suffered at the Second Battle of Lys.  Only his youngest son, John Godfrey Beresford Draper, survived the war; he was gassed in 1917 and invalided home.†

In a book of poetry published before the war, Draper had written an untitled Christmas poem.  When read with the knowledge that three of his sons died in the Great War, its last lines are heart-rending:

Father of Lights! be with us
When earthly light sinks low,
That we may find hereafter
The love of long ago.††

*Joe Shute, “The forgotten Christmas truce the British tried to suppress,” Telegraph, 26 Dec. 2015,, Accessed 10 Dec. 2017.
† Andrew Robinson, “The Great War’s test of faith for church rector,” Yorkshire Evening Post, 1 Aug. 2014,, Accessed 10 Dec. 2017.
†† W. H. Draper, “When on the Eve of Christmas,” Poems of the Love of England, Chatto & Windus, 1914, p. v.

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