I have recently discovered the National Botanic Gardens here in Dublin. It’s free and anyone can wander the grounds and greenhouses, which is GREAT news for me, as I’m living on a tight budget and this country girl needs GREEN. There is one particular section of the gardens that I love: the ‘Wild Ireland’ section, which represents the various natural landscapes of this island. Tiny beds for the coastal areas, dunes, salt marshes, bogs, mountains… even a mini ‘Burren.’
It was in the Wild Ireland section that I stumbled upon a Rag Tree.
Hanging rags or mementos from tree branches is an ancient ritual, and it seems to occur in disparate places all over the world. In Europe, it is a hanger-on from pagan days, when trees were especially potent symbols of magic, as evidenced by archeological remains of ‘groves’ and Celtic religious rituals. In Ireland, the Hawthorn Tree, like the one above, is historically associated with magic and fairies.
The Magic: If you or a loved one was sick, you wrote the name of the illness on a scrap of cloth and tied it to the rag tree. As the fabric disintegrated, so did the illness in the body. You could also tie wishes, prayers for help or prayers of thanks to the tree.
I’m convinced that this ritual is connected to the Christmas Tree. It’s no secret that the pagan rituals of Europe were coopted and combined with Christian belief. The modern-day Christmas Trees that have been a part of winter my entire life are a continuation of a ritual that is thousands of years old. And some of the ritual ‘magic’ is still there, though we don’t directly acknowledge it. Christmas ornaments are symbolic of many different things: Santa, the sneaky elf who represents the ritual gift-giving of the season, the birth of Jesus and the beginning of Christianity which is essentially a 2000 year old peace movement (though it hasn’t always lived up to those ideals), and on a most basic level, spheres and twinkle lights – abstractions of eternity, the cycle of the seasons, and light. Ornaments are material wishes and prayers.
We encounter various (and sometimes contradictory) messages around this time of year: messages of peace, generosity, and thanksgiving and messages of overindulgent celebration and consumption. Winter is traditionally a time of scarcity, when coming together and combining resources insures the survival of the group. It is also the time of the winter solstice, after which the daylight hours get longer and longer. It is a fragile time, balancing between the poverty of winter and the promise of spring, an appropriate time for a ritual counting of blessings.
This year, the world seems especially fragile, and I don’t need to explain why. You know why (unless you’ve been intentionally hiding under a rock to escape the endless news of refugees, bombs, violence and vitriol. If that is the case, I envy you a bit.) Alas, I’ve been exposed and out in the open, and in reaction, I’ve turned to the past. Most recently, I’ve been reading about the events leading up to and during World War I. And it’s not all poison gas and mutilated bodies; there are a few ‘ironic points of light,’ including the Christmas Truce of 1914.
This story has become legendary and it’s usually summed up thus: On Christmas Eve 1914, soldiers on both sides of the Western Front sang Christmas carols to each other, and on Christmas day, they came out of the trenches without their guns and greeted each other peacefully in No Man’s Land. They shook hands, traded cigarettes, chocolate, and buttons, took photographs, and even played football.
There is no doubt that unofficial ‘truces’ happened all along the trenches. There are firsthand accounts from diaries, letters home, and officer’s journals, not to mention the photographs and surviving ‘button’ souvenirs. These truces were not sanctioned by the high commands of either military, and in some cases, were not officially acknowledged until long after the end of the war. Surprisingly, it seems that these kinds of unofficial truces were fairly common during the first year of the war. No Man’s Land was narrow, and soldiers could hear their ‘enemies’ talking, laughing, and crying out in pain. Many soldiers on both sides were multilingual, and until the start of the war, had probably spent time living, working, or studying in the country they were now fighting against. They were close in age, and they were equally miserable in the trenches. The average ‘Tommy’ or ‘Fritz’ was far removed from the politics of the war, but painfully immersed in the war of attrition on the ground. It’s not hard to imagine, that under the circumstances, soldiers might be tempted to reach out to each other.
News about fraternization travelled up the chain of command, and generals on both sides sent out strict orders to reign it in. They didn’t really need to do that, as the introduction of poison gas to the fighting in 1915, made the soldiers more bitter and less inclined to relate to the other side. They no longer recognized the others’ humanity.
I wonder what we can learn from an event like this? Especially at this time of year, when you hear calls for ‘peace of earth and mercy mild’ alongside reactionary calls for more airstrikes and ‘boots on the ground.’ I think there is something to be said for informal diplomacy – the relationships and interactions that happen on a micro level. People who are radically different CAN and DO coexist all the time. There are plenty of people who I can only stand in ‘small doses,’ but those small doses are important, because they teach me about the limits and specificity of my own experience and force me to try to wrap my head around someone else’s. The fluid give and take of these tiny relationships allows us to dwell in the space between our differences.
I find myself acting as an informal diplomat for America all the time. Here in Ireland, I meet people who are so enthusiastic about ‘America.’ I try to acknowledge their admiration, but also dispel inaccurate myths about my home country. I let them down easy so to speak. Sometimes, people tell me, with righteous indignation, that they can’t believe what goes on in America. I (try to) gently remind them that the news is a tiny fraction of what actually goes on there and use examples from my own experience to show them that Americans (and America) is as various as it is large. From these interactions, I make connections and sometimes I change me mind about things.
But all this fraternization is not morphing me into some homogenous global being – instead I feel more aware of just how ‘American’ I really am. Because that’s how diversity works. It’s not a threat to cultural character, but an opportunity to reflect on it.
So keep calm and carry on fraternizing ;)