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By Rebecca Price Janney, Jan 11 2018 03:24PM

If there was to be a holiday in your honor, how would you like Americans to observe the day? I suppose the answer depends on how you want to be remembered. Of course, I don’t think George Washington or Abraham Lincoln would have wanted their lives and legacies to be remembered mostly via clearance sales. (Maybe, on the other hand, they wouldn’t have minded too much.)

Since 1986, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has been a federal holiday, and I think the way we observe the occasion is fitting—through a day of service. MLK was all about serving. When he graduated from seminary, the talented minister could have created a comfortable life for himself and his family. In fact, he had a quiet, peaceful year in his first little congregation after being ordained. Then, he said:

Things were going well in that church, it was a marvelous experience. But one day a year later, a lady by the name of Rosa Parks decided that she wasn’t going to take it any longer. . . It was the beginning of a movement. (Janney, Great Women in American History, 1996, p. 161.)

The modern Civil Rights Movement to be exact. History, and God, moved King to the center of the maelstrom. Until his death in April 1968, King’s life was on the line almost constantly as he not only preached the gospel, but also non-violent, passive resistance against injustice.

At my son’s middle school, every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day isn’t just a day off. The week before, students engage in acts of service for those less fortunate. They collect clothes and toiletries for the homeless and food items for the homebound, among other things projects.

I like teaching our kids to serve, to know there are needs more important than their own immediate gratification. I also like what King himself had to say about serving in his last sermon at his church on February 4, 1968. The message was based on Mark 10:43, and the title was “The Drum Major Instinct”:

If you want to be important, wonderful.

If you want to be recognized, wonderful.

If you want to be great, wonderful.

But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.

That's a new definition of greatness.

And this morning, the thing that I like about it:

by giving that definition of greatness,

it means that everybody can be great,

because everybody can serve.

You don't have to have a college degree to serve.

You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve.

You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve.

You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve.

You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.

You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.

And you can be that servant.

By Rebecca Price Janney, Jan 4 2018 04:12PM

Today in the Philadelphia area a “high impact” storm is moving through, which includes wind-driven cold with total snow accumulations of 4 to 7 inches. All schools are closed. Driving is treacherous. The storm even has a name—Grayson. I’ve read about ice and snow in Florida, of all places! My friend, who is vacationing in New England, says they’re expecting upwards of 20 inches, along with high winds.

As I sit snug in my centrally-heated home with no place I need to get to today (sorry, gym, but I’ll have to postpone my work out), my mind goes back to a terrible winter many years ago. I wrote about this event in Great Women in American History back in the 1990s, but the memory of the account has lingered all this time. Today I’d like to share an excerpt with you, to provide perspective on our present situation, and to encourage you.

Laura Ingalls Wilder is one of America’s most beloved authors, the writer of the Little House on the Prairie tales of growing up on the frontier in the latter part of the 19th century. In this particular story, her family’s very survival was at stake during an especially perilous winter.

Thirteen-year-old Laura Ingalls strained to read her school book in the half-hearted light of the day. The blizzard of 1880-81 raged outside as if nature had pulled a shade on the sun.

“Ma, couldn’t I please go out for a few minutes?” Laura begged. Bored and restless, she’d been cooped up for days. Although she read, sang, and memorized Bible verses to pass the time, the teenager yearned to stretch her muscles and breathe fresh air.

“No one is going outside in this, young lady.” Caroline Ingalls spoke sternly. She knew about people who, during other blizzards, had frozen to death between their barns and their cabins due to poor visibility.

Laura sighed. “May I at least have a little more kerosene for the lamp, then?”

“I’m sorry,” her mother said gently. She hated to keep saying “no.” “We have to conserve everything.”

Charles Ingalls nodded. “We can’t keep the snow off the tracks long enough for the trains to get through with supplies. I’ve also just heard that the stores in town are running out of everything. We have to make all our reserves last if. . .” He didn’t add the last part of the sentence: “if we’re going to survive.” Everyone knew what he meant.

Fiendish blizzards lashed DeSmet in the Dakota Territory all winter long, creating snow drifts that rose to forty feet. No one went to school or church. The trains didn’t make it in time to bring material Christmas cheer, but the tiny community quietly celebrated their vital faith in God, a faith that sustained them until May, when the first trains finally made it through.


By Rebecca Price Janney, Dec 22 2017 02:29PM

The other day I blogged about the famous World War I Christmas Truce, which occurred during 1914. I also spoke about the event with Cynthia L. Simmons of her "Heart of the Matter" radio show. To listen click the following link.

I hope you enjoy hearing the story as much as I enjoyed telling it.

Merry Christmas!

By Rebecca Price Janney, Dec 19 2017 03:50PM

The World War I Christmas Truce

When I was a girl, I loved the song about Snoopy and the Red Baron meeting in the skies at Christmas and thrilled over the unexpected outcome. Did you know, this whimsical tune is actually based on events from 1914, during the first World War I holiday season?

The World War I Christmas Truce is the only extended one in the history of warfare. At the time it happened, the war was only four months old, but already a million men had died. No one had anticipated the fighting would be so costly. In fact, many people believed the war would be over by Christmas.

To observe the holiday, the English government sent boxes of chocolates and cakes for the soldiers in the trenches, while Germany sent tens of thousands of small (tabletop) Christmas trees with candles clamped to the branches.

On Christmas Eve at nightfall, many English troops heard the singing of “Silent Night” coming from the German lines, and they became very curious. They started peaking through the barbed wire and saw thousands of Christmas trees suddenly appear at the top of the trenches, sparkling in the cold night. Normally to even light a match was to invite gunfire, so the Germans were doing a bold thing.

The English crawled under the barbed wire and were met by the Germans who asked, “You English—you celebrate Christmas?” Upon hearing they did, they began trading small presents with each other, things like uniform buttons, cigarettes, and candy. They agreed to a truce so they could bury the dead bodies on both sides in the no man’s land between their trenches. Some even held joint services.

After that was done, they played soccer – football - together, and one German reported their side won, 3-2. One German brought his goldfish bowl out and did a juggling act.

The military commands on both sides were far removed from the trenches, and when they heard about the truce, they weren’t pleased. They sent orders to stop, but throughout Christmas Day, the soldiers observed the truce.

The next day, the officers in high command moved their soldiers to the rear because they had fraternized with the enemy, and they brought in fresh troops.

The 1960s ballad about Snoopy vs. the Red Baron was fictional, but pilots also observed a truce. Normally, when a pilot on either side downed a plane, he would fly over the area and drop a wreath. During the Christmas Truce of 1914, there’s a story of a British pilot dropping a plum pudding, and a German, a bottle of rum.

We may not be in an all-out war, but we are living in hard times, in a deeply divided nation. There’s a lot of bitterness, anger, and fear about the future. But I believe in the Christmas miracle – of God coming to earth as a tiny baby, born of a human mother in a smelly barn of all places! He is the Prince of Peace.

Because of that overarching miracle, others tend to flow out from it at this season, even among sworn enemies. God reminds us in hard times He’s still here, and He is able to bring together even the most belligerent people.

That gives us reason to hope.

Other facts:

Some French regiments observed a ceasefire, but they didn’t fraternize. This was mainly between the English and the Germans.

The British occupied about 30 miles of trenches, and the French, 300 miles; although several regiments of the French did observe the truce, they didn’t fraternize.

There was only one German soldier who refused to go out and participate in the celebrations. His men tried to convince him -- “Come on, Adi, it’s Christmas.”

He responded, “I don’t believe in Christmas, and I don’t believe in fraternizing with the enemy.”

We have a record of this soldier’s name – it was Adolf Hitler.

For further reading:

Silent Night: The Remarkable 1914 Christmas Truce by Stanley Weinstein. (2002; Plume)

Also, there have been several movies and documentaries about the truce, some more accurate than others!

The Christmas Truce (public domain photo)
The Christmas Truce (public domain photo)

By Rebecca Price Janney, Dec 14 2017 04:14PM

As you know, I’m an aficionado of all things Easton, Pennsylvania, the backdrop for my novels, Easton at the Forks and Easton in the Valley. I would very much like to boast, along with many others in the past, that America’s first Christmas tree appeared in Easton. However, this can’t be proven decisively. Germans made up the majority of Easton’s earliest settlers, and they brought their Christmas traditions with them, so this could be the case. Whether the first tree appeared in Easton, Bethlehem, or Lancaster, I’m pleased to know Easton stood in the ranks of the first place in America to have a Christmas tree.

I recently learned those Christmas trees were actually hung upside down, suspended from ceilings! Many of the ornaments were edible, so keeping the tree off the floor meant less interference from critters.

Pennsylvania Germans are known for other holiday traditions, including Belsnickel, Moravian Stars, and Putzes. Let’s start with Putzes.

Most people talk about “Nativity Scenes” or “Creches,” but the Germans referred to the recreated setting of Jesus’ birth as a “Putz,” from the German word “putzen,”— “to decorate.” As for Belsnickel, he’s the early German equivalent of Santa Claus, but not exactly a right jolly old elf. This fellow plays tricks on people and carries a whip and isn’t afraid to use it against bad boys and girls. Leaving coal in their stockings is surely tame by comparison. This may be why in my family, we preferred St. Nick! (Actually, I never knew about Belsnickel until I had grown up. No wonder!)

Next to the Putz and tree, my favorite Pennsylvania German tradition is the Moravian Star, which is an elegant reminder to me of the Star of Bethlehem (not Pennsylvania, Bethlehem of Judea). This early 1800’s decoration was first created at a Moravian Boys’ school in Niesky, Germany for a math class. Originally red and white to represent Christ’s blood and purity, Moravian Stars became a symbol of Advent in shades of white, with 26 points. I love seeing them suspended from porches and atop trees throughout the Christmas season.

What Christmas traditions do you observe according to your family’s cultural background?

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