Monday, December 18, 2006


Decorating the traditional family Nordmann sapin de Noel, usually over two and a half meters high (slightly exceeding eight feet), requires organization, dedication and care. While the Christmas season proceeds apace in Paris and throughout France, Amerloque has been leisurely going through the various crates and cartons of Christmas items and memorabilia gathered down through the years, both in the USA and in France.

Sipping on wassail or eggnog and munching on the season's first Christmas cookies, with CDs of Christmas carols and songs from the Amerloque family's extensive collection playing melodiously in the background, M and Mme Amerloque and the children (who welcomed a break from studying for University exams) spent the greater part of a weekend choosing various ornaments for this year's iteration of The Tree. Selecting les boules de Noel, stars, and figurines seems to be take a bit more time every year: the Amerloque family has made a point of collecting at least one Christmas bauble in many of the memorable venues they have visited individually and severally. There are quite a few indeed: a genuine silvered partially hollowed out ball from Copenhagen, purchased there in the 1990s, might end up hanging from a branch adjacent to a real 1940s postwar "Shiny Brite" ornament from the USA - or a simple folk ornament picked up in Transylvania in the late 1960s. A small, modern Norwegian elf might sit on a branch next to a gilded plastic San Francisco cable car - or a treasured santon de Provence.. A fragile elongated bauble purchased at the Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt might find itself side by side with a small blown glass bird from Murano - or an ane berrichon from Limoges.

Of course, sometimes when an ornament is picked up, examined and exclaimed over, Amerloque or a member of the family might ask "Do you remember ... ?" - this does tend to ensure that things drag on a bit, as the story of the item is recalled. Two entire cartons alone are devoted to recipe books, Christmas cards (including a number of late Victorian and Edwardian ones), songbooks and sheet music.

Nowadays with the consumer society, the giftgiving, and the attendant media hype, one can easily tend to lose sight of what the Christmas holiday represented in the past to some people: belief in and hope for a better future, in some cases. Amerloque was reminded of this when, at the bottom of one large carton of Christmas souvenirs, he ran across a lovingly preserved copy of a selection of Polish Christmas carols called Najpiekniejsze Polskie Kolendy by Adam Harasowski, which he had picked up in London quite a few years previously.

The carolbook, in both Polish and English, dates definitely from December, 1940. World War II had been raging on for well over a year in Europe: the German panzers had rolled into and over Poland in September of 1939. They had swept all before them and had butchered the ill-equipped and even more ill-prepared Polish armies. Soviet Russia had treacherously stabbed the Polish people in the back by adhering to the non-aggression pact signed between Germany and the USSR in late August, 1939 – and leaving the Poles to their fate, before occupying the eastern half of the country.

Yet what of the Polish people ? What did Polish fighters do ?

Some went to France, where the Polish government in exile organized a new army of about 80,000 men. To no avail, since by that December of 1940, the low countries, a goodly portion of Scandinavia, and la belle France had fallen, too, under the Nazi yoke. Charles de Gaulle had called for the Free French to resist on June 18, 1940: French men and women from all parts and of all conditions had hurried to London - and to meeting points in the French Empire - to unite and thus give the truth to de Gaulle's then almost unbelievable assertion that France had lost a battle, but not the war.

The Poles ? Many of them in the West were to gather in Scotland, contributing to the defenses of Britain and preparing to fight for the Allies on the Continent when the time came. The town of Abernethy, between Edinburgh and Inverness was the headquarters of the Polish Army, some members of which married local girls and settled in the area. There was at least one Pole in nearby Newburgh, for on the 23th (sic !) of December 1940, he offered a book of Polish carols to one Elizabeth Brown. Was she a girlfriend ? A co-worker ? A nurse ?

The forward to the carol collection, penned one Zygmunt Nowakowski, a member of the Polish National Council, unflinchingly states what it was like, back then:

Poland today is under the rule of Herod. He gave orders to slaughter not only forty, but many thousands of youths. No star shines today over Poland, and the three wise men will not find their way to the Manger of Bethlehem ... there will be no shepherds to bring gifts ... The Nazis have made slaves of them and the Bolsheviks have deported them into far Siberia ... no songs will be heard over the Manger ... Even the straw from the Manger has been stolen by the Germans and the Bolsheviks ...

At one time – how long ago it was – boys singing Christmas carols went from village to village, from house to house carrying a golden star. They walked with that Star, one attired as a Bear, one as a Jew, one as a Highlander, one as Saint Joseph, singing gaily, happily. In Cracow, that most glorious of the towns of Poland, on the huge market-square, there was an artificial wood of Christmas trees, there were stalls full of spangles, Angel's hair, silver and coloured glass balls; there were puppet-shows under the monument of Mickiewicz, the bugle call from the tower of Saint Mary's Church sang ...

All that is now silent and extinguished in both halves of Poland. On both sides there is the complete darkness of a black-out. But in that darkness there is the glow of a fire under the ashes. Poland is in the state of Advent. Poland waits ...

These Carols will shine to us as candles on a Christmas tree, candles lit by our sorrow and yearning for all those who were left in the country, in the darkness of the black-out of slavery ... Our greatest poet was right in saying that

"The flames may destroy the painted pages of history,
The treasures might be stolen by the Teutonic knights,
But the songs will survive."

Hope was alive and well in the hearts and minds of those Poles, both before Christmas and during Christmastide. Similar hope was undoubtedly beating in the breasts of French men and women in London, in those black and unforgiving December days of 1940.

Today, it is a time of peace, at least in Europe. Those dark times of Christrmas, 1940 are but story and tale for most people, who learn a sanitized and bowdlerized history from the media and from textbooks, and remember very little of it, and care even less.

In Paris shops and stores are thronged with chattering shoppers, the shuffling lines at the cash registers are long and it appears, for the moment, as though the forthcoming weather will be like that old French proverb (Noël au balcon, Paques aux tisons) ... but – is it Amerloque's imagination, or do people seem to be a bit unhappier this Christmas than last year ?

Could it be that the upcoming two rounds of French Presidential elections April and May, followed immediately by legislative elections in June, are beginning to be a cause for worry ? Could it be that because prices of gifts and celebratory foods have seemingly skyrocketed this year-end, it might be hard to make ends meet ? Could it be because … the people – as some animals scent a forthcoming storm - feel unwanted and perhaps untoward changes looming in the New Year ?

Amerloque hopes that each reader of these lines will truly appreciate this Christmas what she or he has – health, family, wealth, peace – without having to lose it outright or to give it up for years, like the Poles in those dark days of 1940, of sinister memory.

Merry Christmas ! Joyeux Noël !


Text © Copyright 2006 by L'Amerloque
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