The promise of Christmas: Why we still celebrate the birth of Jesus 2,000 years after it happened
By Black River Santa
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was born on this day in 1840, in Votkinsk, in the Russian Empire. Though he never played Santa Claus, the score he wrote for the two-act ballet, “The Nutcracker,” adapted from E.T.A. Hoffman’s story, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," is part of our collective Christmas soundtrack, and attending a stage performance is an annual family tradition for many during the holiday season. I know this has to be a @Drosselmeyer favorite!
By Black River Santa
Santa Claus Flew a Piper Cub
By Black River Santa
On Christmas Eve 1944, the beleaguered American defenders holding the little Belgian town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, were low on everything except courage. An airdrop the day before had brought in some supplies but the few, exhausted medics, who tended to wounded GIs in dank cellars throughout the town, had no penicillin and damn little of anything else. When the Germans surrounded the town on December 19, they captured nearly all of the medical personnel and supplies. According to one trooper named Ernie Cummings, who was there with the 101st Airborne, the handful of medics had no choice but to amputate the growing number of gangrenous and frostbitten limbs.
Back at headquarters, they were frantically trying to get medical supplies through to Bastogne but the foul weather ruined any hopes for another airdrop. Instead, they turned in desperation to some of the smallest members of the massive American air armada – the single-prop, unarmed Piper Cub L-4s, known affectionately as “grasshoppers.” The Piper Cub was designed in the 1930s and was a popular civilian sport plane. During the war, it was used for reconnaissance flights and made an ideal spotter plane for artillery and armor, but the slow-moving, low-flying, grasshoppers were also vulnerable to all types of ground fire.
At the 28th Division HQ, volunteers were requested from the ranks of the Piper Cub pilots that spotted for the division artillery. The men were told that they would fly in at night and face heavy enemy fire. They were also warned that there was no airstrip near Bastogne to land on, and no lights to guide them in. Every one of the plucky grasshopper pilots stepped forward to volunteer. One, who insisted the loudest and most adamantly, was a young lieutenant from Far Hills, New Jersey named Kenneth B. Schley, Jr.
As the tiny planes were loaded with vital penicillin, the weather worsened and an icy fog began to envelop the airfield. Back at HQ, the brass was beginning to have second thoughts, and shortly aftr the planes took off, they aborted the mission. Kenneth Schley had anticipated the recall, so as a precaution, he turned off his radio so that there would be no turning back. Alone, he bounced along through the frigid, starless night relying on his compass to guide him to Bastogne. Along the way he dodged bursts of flak, machine gun tracers, small arms fire, and anything else the enemy could throw at him.
After 30 minutes under intense fire, Schley finally reached Bastogne. As warned, he couldn’t see any lights or signs of a landing strip. He buzzed the town several times, swooping down to rooftop level and gunning his engines hoping to be heard but there was still no sign. Determined to get the supplies through at any cost, he decided to crash land. Just then, a double row of flashlights flickered on below, outlining a makeshift landing strip. For the astonished troopers of the 101st Airborne, it was as if old St. Nick had dropped in himself. For the wounded lying in the cellars of the surrounded and besieged town, there couldn’t have been a better Christmas present.
Schley spent the night in one of crowded cellars. He was so impressed with the tenacity of the men of the 101st, he tried to enlist the next morning. When he was told that it was appreciated but not possible, he decided to get back to work. Against the advice of his new comrades and superior officers, Schley hopped back into his Piper Cub on Christmas morning and flew back over enemy lines to his unit. For his “gallantry and complete disregard for personal safety” that foggy Christmas Eve, Kenneth B. Schley, Jr. was awarded the Silver Star.
Lt. Kenneth B. Schley, Jr. (left). A Piper Cub L-4 Grasshopper (right)
By Black River Santa
I enjoyed reading other members' stories about the infamous Belsnickel, and thought I'd share our version here in the hills of Northwest NJ.
“Out on the lawn there arose such a clatter” – no it wasn’t St. Nick.
If the thought of a lump of coal isn’t enough to induce good behavior in your kids at Christmas time, then maybe you need a fur-clad, masked man with a switch – who is not afraid it use it. In Germany, particularly in Lutheran or Reformed households, the Belsnickel, a dark and mischievous figure, would start arriving two weeks before Christmas. Wild and ragged looking, his face was often blackened with coal or covered in a mask that had a long tongue sticking out. With a switch (or even a crop or a whip) in one hand and a sack of goodies in the other, he’d arrive at a house, unannounced, and tap menacingly on the window with his switch. Naturally, most kids would scream and look for the first place to hide, but when their parents opened the door to let him in, they would be gathered together to greet the surly Belsnickel. The Belsnickel would demand to know who had been naughty and if he thought you were fibbing, he was liable to give you a swat with his switch. Then he’d ask each child to recite a bible verse or sing a song. If he was satisfied, he would toss a generous handful or two of candies and nuts on the floor. Those greedy children who jumped too fast for the goodies, got another lick with the switch.
When German immigrants came to America in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought the Belsnickel with them, where he continued to be part of the yule time celebrations in the heavily German settled areas of Pennsylvania, Appalachia, and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. German Palatines that settled in my area of New Jersey, in places like Long Valley, Oldwick, and Califon, in Hunterdon and Morris Counties, also continued the tradition. Over time, however, the menacing Belsnickel was replaced by the Bell Snicklers - groups of merry roving Christmas revelers whose festivities resembled Halloween more than Christmas. The late, Helen Haggerty Geist offers a wonderful description in her, The Califon Story, first published in 1966, and still available in reprint from the Califon Historical Society.
“Another custom, which is peculiar to this section at Christmas time, was ‘bell snickling.’ In case you are not familiar with this term, or its practice, may I tell you that the observance of ‘Halloween’ had not yet been introduced to this section as a time to disguise oneself in any way possible… Instead, the disguising was done on Christmas Eve as the ‘Fun Makers’ knocked on the door and waited for it to be opened and for the people to guess who the folks were who had disguised themselves. Of course, each family was to treat his guest on candy or cake or some other goodie which he might possess. If a stranger were present, who was not familiar with this strange custom, he often would be scared when the door was opened, and the callers were found to be the ‘bell snicklers’ of Christmas Eve.”