Page 12, 4th December 1981

4th December 1981
Page 12
Page 12, 4th December 1981 — Christmas a holiday for all seasons
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Christmas a holiday for all seasons

lan McDougall during many years was a BRC foreign correspondent in most parts of the world.

MY FAMILY always look forward to our Christmases in this country, partly because there have been so few of them. Between 1951 and 1976 I was in Britain for only four Christmases, the remainder being spent at various BBC posts abroad.

Thus there was one Christmas tree in Nairobi, three in Singapore, two in Belgrade. six in Vienna, four in Bonn, one in Brussels and three in Paris.

When it conies to the point, Christmas is Christmas wherever you are — especially if you happen to be lucky enough to be bringing up children — but the scenery beyond the festooned walls and the rows of Christmas cards can certainly include some dramatic contrasts.

Both Nairobi and Singapore are more or less on the equator, which somehow took the magic out of hot Christmas pudding with brandy butter. and when my wife and I lived in Belgrade there was rather a strong atheist mood in the neighbourhood streets though i think it was there for political reasons rather then being from the heart — which made a lighted Christmas tree look isolated and conspicuous.

On the whole the best atmosphere, in the sense of being the most traditional, was supplied in Germany and Austria, where the Christmas spirit is still to a large extent cherished in a context that has little to do with commercialisation, and where ,now can still usually be relied upon. not to mention Advent calendars in the shops, Advent candles, laurels on the doors (though I'm told that's pagan), the Three Kings coming to your house and actually .singing before

expecting a reward, and goose as a common alternative to turkey — more common than in Britain. even in these days.

But we preserved the British habit of opening presents on Christmas morning instead of on Christmas Eve, and always found it difficult to track down crackers to pull over the nuts.

A foreign correspondent isn't entitled automatically to Christmas any more than he is entitled to any other day off, but as things turned out there were very few Christmases when I had to leave home, although there were many when I had to spend a few hours in the office.

The simple explanation is that any news which breaks on Christmas Day is almost certain to be disaster news, or news of some quite unexpected kind, because all over the Christian world politicians have gone home too and left the journalists with little or nothing to do.

There is a moral here somewhere. I have often been struck by the way in which politicians and journalists live off one another in a kind of symbiotic process which ensures that both sides can continue to exist. Take away one or the other and the world would sink into a primeval apathy which at first might seem cosy and harmless, but which in the long term would lead to all the dangers that an absence of conscientious press reporting always does lead to.

What this amounts to is that Christmas comes but once a year, and perhaps it's just as well that it doesn't come more frequently. Even as things stand now, it is the season of goodwill to all men only for those who were brought up to think that way: for those to whom Christianity means nothing think of Hitler's aggressions at sacred holiday times — it could prove a splendid season at which to catch the western bureaucrat asleep,

To Rome in triumph

A PICTURE on this page a few weeks ago of the Gallery of Maps at the Vatican reminded me of my first visit to Vatican City. There was no question of getting inside the buildings because this was in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Rome in June 1944 and the situation was, to put it mildly. disorganjsed.

As a young Officer in the Eighth Army. I was among the first Britons into the Holy City simply because I happened to be

attached at that time to the United States Fifth Army, commanded by General Mark Clark, who had made it perfectly clear to everyone that it was his army which would have the privilege of marching in triumph through the Porta Maggiore, and that other armies had better wait their turn.

The fact that Rome had been declared an "open city" and was only minimally damaged was due in large part to Pope Pius XII. On the evening of the day that German soldiers pulled out and the Americans marched in. His Holiness came to the balcony in St Peter's Square. The large crowd gathered there had been summoned by loudspeakers to give thanks to the Pope for his achievement in obtaining agreement among enemies to spare the city.

Many American soldiers were in that crowd, and there were also a number of American seminarists who had apparently been in residence throughout the hostilities: on what terms and conditions I can only guess.

His Holiness came out on to the balcony promptly at six o'clock, and in a clear and ringing voice expressed his thanks that the two warring sides had listened to and observed his plea for the sparing of the city. He said that in Rome, where the blood of the two great apostles Peter and Paul had been shed, no more fraternal blood should be spilt. His Holiness then blessed the crowd, which called him back to the balcony time and time again to receive further ovations.

It was an occasion that brought an atmosphere of calm and traditional piety into an otherwise almost chaotic scene. The Italian king was transferring his powers to Prince Umberto. the battered divisions of Field Marshal Kesselring were pursuing their ragged retreat northwards, the Italian newspapers were busy

explaining why they had so far had to support Mussolini but were now able to reveal their true colours as fervent friends of the allies, and President Roosevelt made a special broadcast to mark the occasion.

Every soldier in the victorious armies were offered flowers, food and free accommodation offers which did not get extended quite so generously to the troops who came later — and meanwhile the advertisement columns of the prestigious newspaper II Messagero were allowing normal Italian life to proceed: "36-year-old widow of youthful appearance and desirous of affection would marry serious and distinguished gentleman aged 40-45 with capacity for deep feelings", "Small family of gentlefolk seeks maid of all work with excellent references."

One sometimes had the impression that life in Italian towns had not been greatly changed by the war, whereas the opposite was true in the countryside where the fighting was heaviest, and where there was constant contact between peasants and the opposing armies — the Germans always withdrawing, the allies always advancing.

It was in these circumstances that many allied soldiers came to understand the immense power of the local priests in holding together the morale of their com

munities, and to appreciate the problems faced by the Church in even in h

n aptpeeanrionsgtiltitoiefsavour either side

Dreaming of 1984

ONE TRIP I am hoping to make in the next few years is to Oberammergau, where in 1984 there will be a special performance of the Passion Play to mark its 350th anniversary. Apart from the fact that we have a daughter working there (nothing to do with the play, though) I want to compare my memories of the 1950 performance with the latest version, which I understand includes a changed text.

I want also to hear again that marvellous music written by the composer and teacher Rochus Dedler and then lovingly revised for the 1950 performance — the first since the war — by Professor Eugen Papst, who rid it of many baroque superficialities and kept particularly in mind the fact that it had to be played by Oberammergau musicians who could practise only in their free time.

I was the BBC correspondent in Vienna at the time, and 1 remember driving to the Passion Play in an enormous recording truck in which, with the help of my Austrian technician, we proceeded to make disc

recordings of the music. which in turn were driven to Munich airport and put on board some lumbering old DC-3.

There seems, by the way, to be a lingering suspicion even among Passion Play enthusiasts that it is perpetuated with an eye mainly on the box-office. It certain!) brings in money, but it also costs a great deal of money, and it remains true that it is the cherished possession, in a literal sense. of the people of Oberammergau who act in it and teach their children to act in it, and have done so for centuries.

Never have they accepted even the most seductive offers to have it filmed, to send it on tour, or to stage it outside the ten-year periods except for such special anniversaries as will occur in 1984. And how much better that 1984 should reflect the Passion than the nightmare world depicted in George Orwell's novel.

A footnote for those who have forgotten — or who never knew. but didn't want to admit it —why the Passion Play exists at all. In the spring of 1632, and in the wake of the scorched-earth policy carried out by the troops of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden as they retreated from Bavaria. the countryside was ravaged by the Black Death carried by the vagabond "Landsknechte–. Oberammergau and nearby

villages tried to create a "cordon sanitaire" around themselves but this was penetrated and 82 villagers died. The parish council then met on the feast of the Apostles Simon and Jude and made a vow to perform the Passion Play every ten years if the village were freed from the plague. There were no further deaths, and the first play was staged in 1634 with a text provided by a local Benedictine monastery.

Meanwhile, at least one western journalist will be dozing at Christmas this year: and he sends his 'warmest best wishes to all readers of this paper who may care to follow his example.




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