Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Tag

Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: For the Fallen – An Appendix of Poetry.   Leave a comment

This is a collection of poems (and pictures) which were published in 2014 (27 July) in The Daily Mirror. 

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Note: Wilfred Wilson Gibson was born in Hexham, Northumberland. Originally a social worker in the East End of London, he became a private on the Western Front. His poems are usually narrative in form even when short. During the war, he was one of the first poets to introduce savage realism into his writing. He had been a friend of Rupert Brooke.

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Note: Brooke’s best-known poem, one of his War Sonnets, was first recited from the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday in 1915. It was then published the next day and quickly became renowned as one of the finest war poems. Later the same month Brooke died from an infected mosquito bite he got a month earlier serving with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. Although serving in the Navy, Brooke had fought on land in the initial campaigns in Belgium. In the picture by teenage German gunner Walter Kleinfeldt, a crucifix survives the shelling while troops lie scattered.

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Note: Probably Owen’s most famous poem, though possibly not his best, Dulce et Decorum Est was written in August 1917, though it may not have been fully edited until October 1917. When he wrote it, he was recovering from shell-shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. The quotation, from the Roman poet Horace, which Owen wishes to brand as a lie, means, It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country. In the poem, he dwells on the horrible details of deaths and terrible physical effects of wounds. Owen sets out to shock civilians with unrelenting details of a man’s death from gas, which was ‘obscene as cancer’:

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Note: In the following poem, Sassoon mimics civilians who try to console wounded soldiers with silly arguments. By ‘the pit’ he is referring to the depth of despair:

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Note: McCrae’s famous poem first appeared anonymously in Punch on 8 December 1915. In it, McCrae imagined how the dead lying beneath the poppies of Flanders would call on future generations to sustain the causes for which they died. He was appointed to take charge of a hospital at Boulogne but died of pneumonia in January 1918 before he could take up his appointment.

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Note: In the picture above, thousands gather for Armistice Day at London’s temporary cenotaph in Whitehall in 1919.

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Note: After she was appointed poet laureate in 2009, Carol Ann Duffy wrote this poem to mark the death of Harry Patch, the last surviving veteran of the Great War.

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Note: Since Kipling had written imperialist poetry before 1914 he might have been expected to write crudely jingoistic poetry to support the war effort; instead he wrote surprisingly bitter poetry, especially after he wrote surprisingly bitter poetry, especially after the loss of his son, a lieutenant in the Irish Guards, killed in action at the Battle of Loos. As an act of remembrance of him, Kipling helped pay for many years for the endowment which made it possible for the Last Post to be sounded every night at the Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres. He died in 1936.

This selection of poems is extracted from The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. http://www.penguin.co.uk

 

The Genuine Jerusalem and ‘the trump of God’: Part One – The House of David.   Leave a comment

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‘Fake History’ versus Religious Literacy:

‘Fake News’ has apparently now found a supplement in ‘Fake History’ for the Trump administration in the United States of America. At the beginning of Advent 2017, in a move mainly concerned with pleasing the religious right in America rather than appeasing Israel, the ‘peacock’ President unilaterally declared Jerusalem as the (exclusive) capital of Israel and promised to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to the city. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this action in terms of an ultimate two-state solution in Palestine, the justification that it is based on three thousand years of history is, quite simply, in error, whether one looks at the historical, archaeological or biblical evidence. It is more connected with literal and heretical interpretations of the Book of Revelation among extreme evangelicals than with the records contained in the Old Testament books of Kings and Chronicles, viewed in the context of other contemporary sources. It is also based on a view which is at best misguided and at worst purely ignorant of the nature of the territories and kingdoms of Israel and Judah in ancient times, in relation to their neighbours, as well as with regard to the role of Jerusalem in ancient times. We live in a time when a decline in religious and historical literacy has allowed a literal fundamentalism to become predominant in church and politics, at least in the USA. A leading American evangelical, Gary M. Burge, has recently expressed his frustration at the failure of his fellows to grasp and articulate the true message of the Old Testament about the true mission of the peoples of Israel:

Numerous evangelicals like me are less enamored of the recent romance between the church and Republican politics, and worry about moving the U.S. embassy. For us, peacemaking and the pursuit of justice are very high virtues. We view the ethical teachings of the scriptures as primary, and recognize that when biblical Israelites failed in their moral pursuits, they were sorely criticized by the Hebrew prophets and became subject to ejection from the Holy Land. … We need people like them now to remind the White House that in the Middle East, even symbolic gestures can have very real, dangerous consequences. But we also need evangelicals to do this. Trump listens to his evangelical advisers—and they are the ones who can lead him back to the Hebrew prophets, where a different point of view can be found.

In this series of ‘postings’, I have chosen to return to the basic sources which I used as a student of Biblical Studies and Church History and informed my early career in teaching History and Religious Education. In doing so, I want to demonstrate how important it is to understand the parallel development of the ancient history of Palestine and Israel with the evolution of an oral and literary tradition of first Jewish and later Christian eschatology, concerned to provide the persecuted faithful with a sustained vision of divine power. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the two are connected in the figure and person of the Messiah breaking through into human reality. This time of year, Advent, Hannukah and Christmas are redolent of these themes.

The Empire of David and Solomon:

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The history of Jerusalem as a Hebrew or ‘Israelite’ capital begins with David’s capture of it from the Philistines, following his establishment of his united, independent rule over the whole of the territory of the ten tribes (II Samuel 5. 17-25). The Philistine empire had been swept away overnight by a man who, unlike the current American President, had won his way to power through his sheer intellectual ability. After the battle of Mount Gilboa (c. 1,000 BC), in which both King Saul, the first Hebrew king, and his son Jonathan were both killed (1 Sam. 31), it had seemed that the Israelite kingdom was at an end and that Philistine power was unchallenged. David’s first steps towards national leadership were taken under Philistine auspices. They thought that they had every reason to trust him, and no doubt approved on his first action, which was to advance on Hebron, the chief city of Judah (II Sam. 2.2-4). They underestimated his status as a ‘national hero’ to the Judaeans, who needed no show of force to choose him as their king. However, to the Philistines, this ‘kingship’ was a title without substance: as far as they were concerned, he was governing Judea as a vassal state on their behalf.

David spent his next few years consolidating his territorial position. He accepted the invitation of the local elders to become king of the north and east (II Sam. 5.1-3). Although his defeat of the Philistines was decisive, he did not annex their home territory: he left them still independent but unable to harm him (II Sam. 8.1). Instead, he went on to conquer the neighbouring states of Moab, Edom and Ammon, and the Aramaean kingdoms of Zobah and Damascus (II Sam. 8; 10. 15-19; 12. 26-31), in such short order that the more distant states of Hamath and Tyre quickly established friendly relations with the new power which had appeared in Palestine. As a result, during his lifetime, no foreign power attacked the Israelite territories. Apart from his capture of Jerusalem, we are not told what happened to the city-states of Canaan. Some had been conquered by the Philistines, others remained independent. Only later in the biblical narrative are they referred to as ‘cities in Israel’. We may assume that they capitulated to David, as it was unlikely that he would have tolerated independent enclaves within his home territory when setting out on foreign campaigns.

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Therefore, by the mid-tenth century BC, a ‘country’ which, only a few years previously, had consisted of a few loosely-organised tribes under foreign domination had now become an Israelite empire, stretching from the border between Egypt and Gaza to the Euphrates. Its creator, David, was to rule it for almost forty years, until 961 B.C. Internally, David took some shrewd steps to consolidate his position. Although his capture of Jerusalem probably took place later than is suggested in the biblical account (II Sam. 5. 6-9), he then transferred his capital there from Hebron. He thus not only secured an extremely strong, fortified city as the centre of his government but also forestalled tribal jealousies. Had he continued to rule from Hebron, the northern tribes might have seen him as a Judaean upstart; but Jerusalem had no tribal connections at all, so he was able to project himself as an impartial king of ‘all Israel’.

Even more successful was David’s transfer to Jerusalem of the ark of the Covenant. This was a sacred object, once the rallying point of the tribal league, which had been captured by the Philistines. It still had the power to command the old loyalties to the priesthood which had existed before Saul became king, and by placing it in his new capital, David made another shrewd move to strengthen loyalty to himself and to allay any suspicions that more conservative factions might have had that he intended to sweep away old traditions and institutions in establishing a new type of monarchy based on the pagan model of the imperial rulers in the region. By this action, he proved both his piety as an Israelite of old and his concern to give the old tribal league a permanent centre where the traditional worship of the God of Israel would be carried on as before.

He was greatly assisted in these policies by what must have seemed to his subjects and contemporaries as miraculous success in everything he did. No-one, it was believed, could have been so successful without at least a measure of divine favour. This is the constant narrative theme of the Hebrew scriptures about him, becoming almost a ‘theological dogma’ in II Sam. 7 where God is represented as confirming David’s position as the divinely appointed and anointed leader through whom God’s will for his people was achieved. There is no reason to doubt that David himself believed this, and saw himself as the servant of the God of Israel. At the same time, however, he was well aware that his was a composite, multi-ethnic kingdom, comprising Canaanites as well as Israelites. The cooperation of the latter was not only essential for the safety of the state, but also of great potential benefit to it. They were the heirs of centuries of civilised urban living and superior to the Israelites both in warfare and in the arts of peace. Unassimilated, they constituted a serious existential threat; assimilated, they provided David with much-needed administrative and military expertise. In return for their loyalty, David seems to have recognised their autonomy over their own local administration, also allowing them the freedom to practise their own religious traditions.

Thus in his religious policy, David steered a careful middle course. At Jerusalem, the worship of the God of Israel centred upon the ark was modified by elements borrowed from the pre-Israelite Canaanite cult. In this way, Canaanites who worshipped in the city did not feel that the Hebrew worship was entirely alien, imposed on them by a foreign conqueror. A similar policy was adopted in the former Canaanite cities, and the worship of their gods, thus tolerated, continued to flourish throughout the period of the monarchy. David was no religious fanatic, though believing himself to be under the favour and protection of the God of Israel. In fact, this ‘multi-cultural’ approach contributed considerably to his success as a ruler by divine right.

David’s systematic monarchy was very different from the chaotic rule of Saul. As a powerful political state, Israel rapidly developed institutions which were entirely new to the Israelites, in many respects modelled on those of its neighbours. The business of efficient government required a professional civil service which David recruited from both Israelite and Canaanite sources, also employing skilled scribes from other countries which had greater experience in administration, especially from Egypt. This central government at Jerusalem provided the king with advice on political problems in the ‘wisdom’ tradition of the Near East. It also administered justice under the king as chief judge, collected taxes and dues, organised a state labour force, kept administrative records and dealt with foreign affairs, maintaining diplomatic correspondence with foreign powers and negotiating international treaties.

These ‘wise men’ were also known as ‘scribes’, belonging to an educated class which was international in character and identifiable throughout the ancient Near and Middle East. It comprised statesmen and administrators as well as men of letters, and it exerted great influence on the affairs of Judah from the time of David to the fall of the Judaean state. They were products of a higher education whose aim was to inculcate a religious mental discipline and to provide hard-headed and clear-thinking men to fill important diplomatic and administrative offices in the state. The title of ‘scribe’ was given to such high officials in Egypt as well as to their counterparts in Babylonia and Assyria. The title ‘scribe’ or ‘secretary’ does not simply mean that the person is a skilled writer, nor does it show that the office he holds is one which calls for linguistic dexterity. It implies that without these skills a man did not possess the essential qualifications for office, and is a reminder that the mastery of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sumerian cuneiform scripts required intellectual concentration of a high order. In II Sam. 8. 16-18 and 20. 23-25 there are official lists of the leading members of David’s establishment, ecclesiastical, civil and military. Of the two political officials named, Seraiah is ‘the secretary’ of state, and Jehoshaphat is ‘the recorder’. Both are of the highest rank in the government.  Solomon’s principal officials are called ‘statesmen’, and a hereditary principle is seen to apply in both civil and ecclesiastical spheres. The office of secretary of state, occupied by Seraiah under David, appears to be held jointly by his two sons (I Kings 4. 1-6). Solomon’s list is longer than that of David’s reign, reflecting the more complicated organisation of Solomon’s state. Azariah, son of Nathan, is said to have control of ‘the officials’, probably the twelve appointed by Solomon over all Israel, each of whom was responsible for the provisioning of the royal household for one month of the year.

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The degree of centralised control which was exercised by Solomon brought into being a cadre of officials who had close associations with Jerusalem and the court and to whom administration and diplomacy were trusted. They were a class specially educated from an early age for the responsibility of high office, and it may be that a school for ‘scribes’ was founded by Solomon in Jerusalem in order to meet the demand for high service in his state. These ‘statesmen’ were at the centre of government and foreign affairs in Israel and Judah from the time of David to the end of the monarchy. They had all the prestige and reputation as weighty counsellors to the king. Diplomacy and administration became a profession in Judah and were in the hands of a class of men who understood the internationally accepted protocol and had their own standards of efficiency, conscientiousness and integrity.

These administrative developments had far-reaching consequences. In particular, they facilitated greater social distinctions than Israelite society had ever known before. The Canaanite cities were already accustomed to a highly stratified social structure, but this was the first time that the freeborn Israelites had experienced rule by a wealthy, urban ruling class whose interests were far from identical from their own. In the reigns of David and Solomon, Jerusalem became a wealthy, cosmopolitan city in which this ruling class enjoyed a standard of living beyond anything which could have been dreamed of by the Hebrew peasantry and craftworkers. Apart from the fact that they were now free from foreign oppression and slavery, the ordinary Israelite population still consisted mainly of farmers who hardly felt the benefits of Israel’s new ‘imperial’ status.

Supreme above the new upper class stood the king. Whatever the divine sanctions by which he claimed to rule, and however much he might rely on the loyalty of the ordinary Israelite, one of the main sources of his power was his professional army, which owed him a purely personal loyalty. It was this army which had first enabled David to capture Jerusalem, but many of its members were foreigners who had no reason for loyalty to Israel or its deity (II Sam. 8. 18; 11; 15. 18-22; 20. 7, 23). It was these ‘servants of David’ who, during Absalom’s rebellion, defeated the rebels, known as ‘the men of Israel’ and restored David to the throne (II Sam. 18. 7). Having secured his position through this mercenary army, David was able to play the part of an oriental monarch, gathering around him a court which imitated the splendour of foreign courts and tending to become more isolated from the common people (II Sam. 15. 3 f.) He was too shrewd, however, to allow this tendency to go too far. He knew that ultimately he could not retain his throne without the loyalty and affection of his people, and also that too great a departure from social and religious traditions of the Israel of old would put his throne in danger. It is unlikely that this Israelite monarchy, at this or any other time during its short existence, succumbed to the temptation of claiming for itself that semi-divine character which was characteristic of other monarchies of the time. We have to distinguish between some of the high-flown language in the Psalms and the Second Book of Samuel and the actual political realities faced by David. He was certainly regarded, like Saul, as ‘the Lord’s anointed’, the man who had brought salvation to his people, but there were too many men at his court who knew the facts of his rise to power for any further extravagant notions about his office to gain wide credence.

David did, however, firmly adopt one aspect of the monarchical concept which hardly accorded with the Israelite ideas of charismatic leaders, chosen personally by God: the principle of a hereditary monarchy. Saul had also intended that his son Jonathan should succeed him, but under David, the principle seems to have been taken for granted, and it was given a religious sanction in the divine promise given to him in II Sam. 7.  However, neither David’s own position nor the future of his family was really secure. The power and prosperity of the Israelite state made it vulnerable to usurpers, and such men found no lack of grievances which could be turned to their advantage. There were many who had remained loyal to Saul and his family and continued to regard David as a traitor and a murderer, and there were others who had come to disapprove of his arrogant and sinful actions such as his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah. In the north, there were those who resented being ruled by a Judaean, and there were still others who felt that the old religious and social traditions were being overthrown. Following the rebellion led by his own son, Absalom, a man called Sheba, of Saul’s tribe of Benjamin, also rose in rebellion (II Sam. 15-20). Although that rebellion was similarly crushed, the feelings of discontent remained.

The situation in the latter part of the reign was complicated by uncertainty about the succession to the throne. David had a number of wives, several of whom had borne him sons. In the hereditary monarchies of the ancient Near East, there was no rule of ‘primogeniture’, that the eldest son must succeed. The king had the right to choose his own heir, and it was obviously desirable that this should be done in good time. After the death of Absalom, there remained Adonijah and Solomon, half-brothers, as obvious candidates. The rivalry between the brothers led to a dangerous feud among the leading men of the state. But Adonijah made a false move, and paid for it with his life, dragging down with him some of the most important personalities of the reign which was now ending. Solomon was king, but he began his reign with a bloodbath (I Kings 2). In spite of splendid outward appearances, not least the construction of the Temple, the reign (961-922 B.C.) was a period of stagnation and the beginnings of Israel’s decline. This came as no surprise to contemporaries for whom even the reign of another David (which Solomon was not) could probably not have held together the heterogeneous empire for a second generation.

In economic terms, matters continued to progress relatively well. Although the agricultural resources and reserves of Israel were by no means great, it was well placed in other respects. The overlordship of the Canaanite plain had given David control of the only land route linking Egypt in the south with Mesopotamia in the east and Asia Minor in the north. Solomon ensured his control over it by extensive fortifications of the key cities  (I Kings 4. 26; 9. 15-19; 10. 26), deriving considerable wealth from it through tolls, taxes and external trade. He also established, through the alliance with Tyre, a lucrative maritime trade, building his own sea-port on the Red Sea. He also mined copper in Edom and refined it for export. Besides the trade with Egypt and Tyre, trade was also established with South Arabia (I Kings 10. 2,13). These activities brought considerable profit to Israel, but Solomon succumbed to a fatal folie de grandeur by attempting to imitate the splendours of Egypt and Mesopotamia, erecting buildings of great magnificence. Since Israel itself possessed neither the materials nor the skilled labour, he had to import these from Tyre, and as a consequence found himself in financial difficulties (I Kings 9. 10-14). At the same time, he alienated popular support not only by over-burdening his people with an extravagant court (I Kings 4. 7-19, 22f.) but also by extending the forced labour scheme which David had begun to such an extent that it seriously impaired agricultural efficiency (I Kings 5. 13-18).

The Israelite empire began to break up. Judah remained loyal to the king, and the Canaanite cities gave no trouble; but Edom and Damascus revolted, re-establishing their independence and becoming dangerous enemies (I Kings 11. 14-25); and the northern tribes of Israel produced their own leader, Jeroboam, who, when his first uprising failed, retired to Egypt where he was given protection and bided his time (I Kings 11. 26-40).

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Solomon’s most enduring achievement was the building of the temple at Jerusalem, but he could not have realised at the time the significance this would have in later times. The building was merely the corollary of David’s bringing of the ark to Jerusalem. Solomon provided a magnificent shrine for it, but in doing so he employed Phoenician architects and craftsmen to design and build it, thereby ensuring an increase in the Canaanite element of Israel’s worship. Solomon is praised in several biblical passages for his wisdom, but only one of these refers to his statesmanship in doing so. He may have been wise in other respects, but statesmanship was not one of these. Therefore, the early promise of political greatness for Israel went unfulfilled. It had undertaken fundamental changes during the reigns of David and Solomon, changes which would not be reversed. The Hebrews had been brought into the world of international politics and culture. The striking literary examples of this are to be found in the ‘succession narratives’ in which the characters and events at David’s court are described in vivid detail (II Sam. 9-20; I Kings 1; 2) Much of the advances in literary craftsmanship are due to the influence of Egypt and the Canaanite cities, but it is no mere imitation; its authors applied the newly-acquired techniques and insights to their own historical traditions, in which the new confident, national spirit inspired by the heroic achievements of David had given them a new sense of pride.

We not only have the narrative texts of the Books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and the interpretative sources of the prophets on which to base our knowledge of the rise and fall of the Israelite empire, but a vast quantity of written sources dealing with the international setting of the history of Israel has been discovered. Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian records provide a very full account of the histories of those empires, including their relationships with the Israelite kingdoms. In a few instances, they contain independent accounts of events described in the biblical narrative. From Palestine itself we also have two texts, written in Hebrew; the Siloam Inscription, written by Hezekiah’s engineers inside a water tunnel (cf. II Kings 20. 20) and the Lachish Letters, a correspondence between Judaean army officers during the campaign which ended with the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. The excavation of Samaria, the Israelite capital built by Omri, also brought to light the Samaria Ivories, part of the decoration of Ahab’s palace (I Kings 22. 39).

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The Greatest Gift: The Story of the Other Wise Man   3 comments

Although Twelfth Night is no longer as important as it once was in Britain and elsewhere, Epiphany is still marked in the calendar as the day after Christmas when we think about the visit of the three travellers, the ‘wise men’ who made, as T S Eliot wrote in his poem ‘The Journey of the Magi‘, ‘such a long journey at the worst time of the year’.

Henry van Dyke (1852-1933), a modernist who pu...

Henry van Dyke (1852-1933), a modernist who pushed for revisions to the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1900-1910. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another Story which is not so well-known tells us that, as is quite possible, there were more than three travellers, and that a fourth set out but failed to follow the star to reach Bethlehem in time to greet the infant Jesus. The original story, by the Nineteenth-century American writer Henry Van Dyke, is quite long, so, in my lessons this week, I start with the re-telling of it by Susan Summers, a Worcestershire teacher, in her recently published and beautifully illustrated book, The Greatest Gift (Bristol: Barefoot Books, 1997: www.barefoot-books.com) and then summarise the rest of the story in a form which, I hope, is accessible to second language learners at pre-intermediate level and above (it has been tested with adults and adolescents already). Whether or not you’re a teacher or formal learner, I hope you will enjoy the story and find it useful as well as inspiring…

Cover of "The Story of the Other Wise Man...

Cover of The Story of the Other Wise Man

Long ago in the city of Ecbatana, high among the mountains of Persia (in what today we call Iran), there lived a man named Artaban. From a tower at the end of his beautiful garden Artaban used to study the secrets of nature, especially the secrets of the night sky…One night, he and three of his friends, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, noticed a new star rising, which shone more brightly than any they had ever seen. They knew that this star signified the birth of a great teacher and they agreed to follow the star and ‘pay homage’ (or ‘worship’) to the child.

 

 

 

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Artaban made preparations for a long journey, taking with him a ruby, a sapphire and a pearl to give to the ‘King of Kings’. He was to meet his companions far to the East by the Temple of the Seven Spheres in Babylon. But on the way, he stopped to help a dying man and so arrived late at the temple. His friends had already departed, and desperate to see the new-born king, Artaban had to set off across the desert alone. So he returned to Babylon, where he sold his glittering sapphire and his beloved (but very tired) horse Vasda in exchange for a ‘caravan’ of camels. Then he set out across the desert.

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Like his three friends, Artaban had read the prophecies and studied the stars, so he knew that this ‘Son of David’ would be born in Bethlehem in Judea. As he came near to the town, he had to crouch down in the ditch by the Roman road as a troop of soldiers came galloping along with swords drawn. He followed them into a nearby village, and was startled to hear the cries of young children and their parents, all in great pain and distress. The soldiers were everywhere, breaking down doors and bringing from the houses the very young babies and infants, one and two years old.

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As Artaban sheltered in a doorway and could hear the sound of crying from inside the house. He pushed his way past the door and saw the frightened mother screening something with her body. She had hidden her child from the soldiers and was afraid they might return. Artaban comforted her and when later a soldier did look in, Artaban stood in front of the mother with his arms raised. Not wishing to risk his own life in a struggle with a man, the soldier left and soon they could hear the sound of retreating troops. The mother had saved her boy but was still very upset by the damage done to her poor home by the soldiers’ search for him. Again, Artaban comforted her, this time by giving her the ruby which was to have been part of his gift for the Christ-child of Bethlehem. With this she had the money to build a new home and a new life for her son.

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When Artaban reached Bethlehem, he found his way to Joseph‘s family home, but was told that Joseph, Mary and the baby had left shortly after his friends had visited, bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The family was on their way to Gaza and the Via Maris, the Great ‘Sea Road’ to Egypt. Joseph had been warned in a dream of the danger from Herod, as had his friends, who had also set off in the opposite direction from Jerusalem, intending to return to Babylon via the Great Road to the North, via Damascus and Nineveh, to avoid Herod and his soldiers. Although Jesus’ refugee family had left behind the gifts of Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, fearing what might happen if they were caught carrying them in Gaza, Artaban decided he would take the pearl with him in the hope that it may be of some use to them on their return to Galilee, as Joseph’s family told him they did not intend to return to Bethlehem until Herod was dead, though they wouldn’t tell him exactly where the family would be living. In any case, the pearl was small enough to be carefully hidden in the babe’s ‘swaddling clothes’. So, Artaban thanked Joseph’s family, hoping to catch up with the refugees on the road south to Egypt and then turn northwards after his friends. However, he could not find the family in Gaza, and though he followed the road all the way to the Nile, there was no sign of them anywhere in Egypt.

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Artaban returned to Palestine and searched for the boy king everywhere during the next thirty years, and always hoped to meet him one day and present him with the pearl. Towards the end of his search in Galilee, he began to hear many stories of Jesus’ actions and sayings, but somehow never caught up with him. Then, after thirty-three years had passed, he heard that Jesus had gone to Jerusalem for Passover, with his disciples. He hurried to catch up with the crowds from Galilee, but when he finally arrived in Jerusalem the feast was already happening and there were crowds everywhere. He heard that Jesus had been tried and condemned to death. Could he get to see him just once, perhaps with the aid of the precious pearl?

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On the Friday of Passover, just before the Jewish Sabbath, he pushed his way through the crowds towards the street where the condemned criminals carried their crosses up to a hill shaped like a skull, ‘Calvary’. Artaban passed through a crowded square where he found a young child being sold as a slave to pay for his family’s debts. He stood by a heartbroken woman whose boy was just then being offered for sale. As the bidding went on, the woman became more and more distressed. Just as the sale was being made, Artaban stepped forward and gave the mother the pearl with which to buy back her son. Now he had no gift left for Jesus.

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When he reached the Way of the Cross, Jesus was just passing. There was a great crowd and many people were leaning out of windows to get a better view of this ‘King of the Jews’ passing by in the narrow street below. From a balcony above Artaban saw a tile fall down, straight towards the head of the young boy he had just saved from slavery. He pushed the boy aside, and the tile hit his head instead. As he fell, dying, Jesus turned to him at that moment and, with a look which told Artaban that his story of sacrifice was known, said ‘as you have given to others, so you have given to me.

Epiphany: Out of the Orient   2 comments

My favourite Epiphany carol is ‘Falan-Tiding’ (‘Out of the Orient Crystal Skies’), not the modern five-part choral setting popular in the US, but using the simple tune of the Tyrolean carol ‘Ihr Hirten, atehet alle auf’. Last year at this time, in The Daily Telegraph, the choirmaster of Canterbury Cathedral, David Flood, chose it as his ‘most unfairly neglected’ carol. According to ‘the Oxford Book of Carols‘ it dates from about 1610. Interestingly, it starts with Matthew’s wise men and ends with Luke’s shepherds, which is truer to the narrative, since the Magi would have had to have left their homes weeks if not months before the birth, given the distance between Tehran and Jerusalem. We often put their story second, because they arrived after ‘the shepherds there about’, who only had to leave their tents and flocks on Bethlehem Down and run down the hillside, ‘singing all even in a rout, “Falan-tiding-dido!” ‘ The poetic and archaic English fits the simple tune beautifully to illustrate the nativity narrative perfectly:

002‘Out of the orient crystal skies

A blazing star did shine,

Showing the place where poorly lies

A blesséd babe divine,

Born of a maid of royal blood

Who Mary hight by name,

A sacred rose which once did bud

By grace of heavenly flame.

This shining star three kings did guide

Even from the furthest East,

To Bethlehem where it betide

This blessed babe did rest,

Laid in a silly* manger poor,

Betwixt an ox and ass,

Whom these three kings did all adore

As God’s high pleasure was.’

*’simple’

Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Uffizi Gallery, Florence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The verb ‘adore’ gives us the other phrase to describe ‘Epiphany’, ‘Adoration of the Magi’, which is the subject of a ‘magical’ piece of orchestral music by the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), from his ‘Trittico botticelliano’ of 1927, so called because it was inspired by three paintings by the Florentine Renaissance master in the Uffizi Gallery there. The central ‘panel’ is ‘L’aderazione dei Magi’, one of four surviving treatments by Botticelli of this subject, showing the presentation of the gifts by the Magi to the new-born Jesus among a crowd of onlookers. In transposing this scene into music, Respighi hinted at the Renaissance period by including the Advent antiphons of ‘Veni, Veni, Immanuel’, taking us back to the beginning of the Christmas period, and reminding us that, not only did the wise men set off weeks before the birth, but that they too recognised the importance of the child’s birth in the context of the Jewish scriptures. They were not simply astrologers, but Zoroastrians who found their wisdom from different traditions and sources, both terrestrial and celestial, occidental and oriental. To indicate this ‘blending’, Respighi blends the Latinate plainchants with occasional oriental melodic inflections. The ‘Moderato’ section then represents the Journey of the Magi, with a trudging two-bar repeated pattern in the strings and an oriental oboe melody. Other wind instruments, together with strings, suggest the presentation of the three gifts and the piece is then completed with the adoration suggested by a simple melody played by a bassoon, a lullaby for the Christ child, drawing on the bagpipe tunes played in Rome and other Italian villages during Advent. The oboe takes up the tune, merging it with a reprise of the opening Sicilian melody.

So, whether in music, picture or poetry, the Epiphany narrative has proved to be the most enduringly inspirational of all the Advent and Christmas stories set down by the gospel-writers. Its message of a ‘new dispensation’ in the form of a humble human birth is what gives it so many dimensions in time and space.

Death of the Dictator: The Romanian Revolution of December 1989   Leave a comment

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The Rebellion in Timisoara and the Revolution in Bucharest had not just taken Ceausescu and his ruling clique by surprise, but the whole world outside Romania, including journalists and news media. John Simpson flew to Belgrade on 22 December and drove the short distance to the Romanian border with three other BBC crew, plus a French reporter and his photographer, in convoy. When they arrived at the border, they expected to be met by Securitate, since they were a long way from Bucharest:

We braked sharply. Three men stood motionless in our headlights, not even blinking. They formed a weird tableau in the dark. I assumed they were part of a Securitate roadblock and braced myself for a bullet. Nothing happened. They held flags over their heads and their hands, grasping the wooden staffs, remained intertwined. There was something strange about the flags: the Communist emblem in the centre had been roughly hacked out of them. These were not Securitate men, they were revolutionaries. The three unsmiling peasants, their lined faces as white as the painted tree trunks in the headlights, and heard that the mutilated flag was the symbol of their revolution. Word had radiated out from Bucharest until it had reached even this obscure place, four hundred miles away. They did not speak to us. They merely watched us uncomprehendingly as we circled round them, filming. We climbed back into our cars and drove off, leaving them still standing there in the darkness… In the nearby villages, unlit except for the statutory forty watt light bulb per dwelling, people turned out to cheer us and dance in the light of our camera.

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The journalists drove on to Timisoara, arriving there at eleven o’clock, finding the town in total darkness and hysterical crowds on the streets. Groups of people emerged from the shadows, demanding to see their accreditation before waving them on to the next batch of guardians of the street, often only ten yards further on. Mass delusion had set in, with the self-appointed roadblocks telling them to turn their lights of, as the Air Force was threatening to bomb the town. At first they complied, but soon the claim seemed implausible. They switched their lights back on, and people shouted at them, but took no action. Some claimed that the Securitate had poisoned the water. They drove fast through Timisoara, glad to leave its hallucinations behind. The serious action now lay ahead in Bucharest.

At first, the focus of the revolution in Bucharest was the Central Committee building. The insurgents had fought their way into Ceausescu’s office, with its ante-room leading out onto the balcony, and took it over as their headquarters. None of them knew each other; they had been brought together by their courage, and were an unlikely bunch of revolutionaries: among them an ordinary soldier who could scarcely write, a cinema stunt man, a sculptor, a couple of would-be politicians, a hostess from the InterContinental Hotel, a witty and worldly-wise sociologist who was hoping to write an account of the group dynamics of creating a revolution, and Adrian Donea, a taxi driver who had started his career as a designer but had switched to driving a taxi because there was more money in it.

The Army was extremely anxious to take over the revolution in its early stages and restore order. It was several days later that John Simpson spoke to one of the soldiers who had been involved from these early stages, taking the whole thing very seriously:

I first found out that the Army had gone over to the side of the people by listening to the radio. Our commanders ordered us to go into action. We were the very first soldiers to take up position here at the Central Committee building. I was very moved when the people embraced us and chanted: ‘The Army is with us! You are our sons, our brothers. You must help us!’

Simpson and his BBC crew arrived in Bucharest at dawn on Saturday 24 December, Christmas Eve. The Army, having declared for the revolution, was rumbling its tanks into the city centre to protect it.

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By Christmas morning the fighting in Bucharest was over. The revolution was accomplished and the counter-revolution had been defeated. It had taken three days. The Square (pictured below) was a depressing sight. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers were skewed around the middle of it, and exhausted soldiers lay on them in a muddle of uniforms. The dome of the University Library was a smoking skeleton the windows blackened by fire. The ground below was covered with black ashes from the books that had been burned. Every frontage in the Square had been splattered by pointless gunfire. The old Royal Palace was a terrible sight, the grand rooms a mess of charred beams and burned furniture. Fire was still licking the walls and the roof of the block of flats opposite the Central Committee building. These were the flats where the senior officers of the Securitate lived, and they had been built with the thought of possible counter-subversion in mind. The windows of the expensive shops which had sold chocolate and jewellery had been smashed by rifle fire.

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It was the first Christmas many Romanians had been permitted to celebrate. This was a society where even Father Christmas had been forbidden. Now there were decorations everywhere, and people were still dragging Christmas trees home that evening. On television there was an announcement that there was a new national flag, just the country’s blue, yellow and red. It was accompanied on-screen by Christmas decorations, a bowl filled with ornaments, just the usual balls of coloured glass that would have been part of the fixtures and fittings of any Western European TV studio, but in Romania they were a symbol of revolution.

In the Square people had been camping out all night round fires of rubbish. At first they had sung their new revolutionary songs, cooking whatever food they could find. It was like the field of some great battle after the fighting was over. Suddenly and terrifyingly there was a wild burst of shooting from a wing of the Central Committee building nearby. In the panic people flung themselves to the ground or ran through the camp fires looking for cover. The soldiers had discovered a small group of Securitate hiding out in one of the first floor rooms. They were captured and taken away for questioning, which consisting of searching them for Securitate documents. Those who were found in possession of these were taken down to the cellars and shot in the back of the head,their bodies taken away in trucks before dawn on each of the following mornings. This was also the fate of the three black labradors, two of them gifts to the Ceausescu family from HM the Queen, which had had the misfortune to be discovered in the Central Committee building, abandoned by their fleeing owners.

There was a kind of revolutionary insanity in the air. Sudden myths swept through the revolutionaries’ camps: Two of Ceausescu’s doubles had been sighted; Ceausescu had escaped and was in China/Iran/East Germany/Albania; Securitate paratroopers had been dropped on Timisoara; that Colonel Gaddafi had sent troops to support the counter-revolutionaries, etc… These myths could be self-defeating. The revolutionaries found the flat where a Securitate sniper had been hiding. It was empty, but a few minutes later a man in a fur hat slipped out of a side entrance and calmly got into his car. It refused to start, he was spotted and pulled out. The crowd treated him roughly, someone punching him in the face. They discovered a pistol on him, but he remained perfectly calm, though his face moved quickly round the circle of faces, searching out the people he had to convince. When they looked through his pockets they failed to find any Securitate documents. He explained coolly that he was an ordinary policeman, off duty, and that he had kept his gun with him to help in the search for Securitate snipers. The crowd liked that, and he gave them some advice about where to search for the snipers in the building. They were, in any case, expecting to find Libyans. They clapped him on the back and went back with him to his car. It still wouldn’t start, so they pushed it for him. As they waved him off, John Simpson suggested to one of the self-appointed commanders of the group that they had let the real sniper get away. He laughed, and said that he thought Simpson was right, adding, but you’ve seen these people; how could I change their minds? What heightened the atmosphere of paranoia in Romania during those first days of the revolution, was that the Securitate really were everywhere.

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Above: A still from the BBC coverage of the tunnels underneath the Central Committee building. Adrian Donea, the taxi driver who became a leading revolutionary, holds a gun to the head of a suspected Securitate man who they have arrested. The tunnels went on for miles under the city, and were stocked with supplies for a long siege.

That Christmas morning, it was bitterly cold. Outside the Central Committee building a hundred or more people were queuing for a free hand out of bread and a watery light brown soup. Each person who received a ration began wolfing it down then and there. Behind them the queue bunched up and the process slowed.  Those waiting shouted angrily, but those eating didn’t stop. Inside the building, Ceausescu’s office was as big as a football pitch. Until two days before he had sat at the enormous desk in the far corner while his ministers std in the circular pattern in the middle of the carpet and called over their business to him. Now there was even more calling over of business: The crew had taken over the admiral’s cabin and there was points were emphasised with revolvers or Kalashnikovs. This was the heart of the powerfully anti-Communist emotions which had welled up and overthrown Ceausescu. There were still Securitate men still at large inside the maze of tunnels under the building. It was also true that a group of special agents had been detailed to infiltrate the revolutionaries in case of a coup.

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Above: Ceausecu’s office in the Central Committee building, under new management. The desk with the typewriter on it is his desk.; so is the choice of paintings. Behind the fierce characters with guns is the door leading to his private apartment. 

Meanwhile, Vaughan Smith, a freelance photographer who had also worked in Afghanistan, had followed the trail of the infamous couple for days after their helicopter had lifted off from the roof of the Central Committee building, meeting and interviewing the people who had come across them on their way to arrest and execution.  The helicopter pilot, Lt-Col Vasile Malutanu (pictured below), explained how he had rescued the Ceausescus and the others in their party from the jammed lift in the building, flying them the short distance to their villa by the lake at Snagov.

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They had arrived at Snagov around 12.30, the staff there knowing nothing of the morning’s events in Bucharest. The chief of security at the villa, Sergeant-Major Lalescu, heard the helicopter’s engines and went out nervously to meet them:

Elena and Nicolae Ceaucescu got out of the helicopter and started running. They ran along the path to the back of the house and went up to their apartment on the first floor. There they went searching through all the cupboards, emptied the drawers and turned over the mattresses. They put everything into two big blue bags. On the top I could see blankets and loaves of bread. I’ve got no idea what was under them. Then they made a couple of calls.

The first of these calls was to the military base at Otatoi, where they could catch a plane to take them out of the country. The other was to a Party secretary in the mountains of the north. It took them three-quarters of an hour for them to pack the bags and make the phone-calls before they hurried back to the waiting helicopter. By this time, the two unwanted passengers, Emil Bobu the prime minister and his deputy, had headed off by car, leaving the Ceausescus and their bodyguards, including General Neagoe. The pilot, Lt-Col Malutanu, had been in contact with his superior officers at Otatoi. They had told him that they had refused Ceausescu’s request for a helicopter escort, but he agreed to follow Ceausescu’s orders:

The bodyguards were very nervous. They kept their machine-pistols pointed at me. On my headphones I could hear my commanding officer saying, ‘Vasile, listen to the radio – this is the revolution!’ After that, Ceausescu ordered me to cut all radio contact with my base. I wanted to persuade him to let us land so he could be captured, but I was on my own, cut off from the world. I deliberately flew into the range of air traffic control radar so they could track our helicopter.

Malutanu was ordered to fly to Pitesti, but protested that he did not have enough fuel, that they were being tracked and that if he didn’t put down, the anti-aircraft defences would shoot them down. None of this was true, but Ceausescu had little choice. They landed next to a country road, but the fleeing president did not want to leave the helicopter, so the pilot pushed him out. As he prepared to take off again, Ceausescu asked him why he was abandoning the cause like this. What cause? he replied. The bodyguards commandeered two cars, one belonging to a local doctor, Nicolae Deca, and the other to a forestry official who had been watching the helicopter land from a nearby farmhouse. Neagoe got into the doctor’s red Dacia with the Ceausescus, and the other bodyguard, Ivan Martin, drove off in the other car, after telling the Ceausescus he would follow them. In fact, he was deserting them, and drove off in the other direction, back towards Bucharest. Dr Deca, a stout man in his mid-fifties was extremely scared, especially as Neagroe was pointing a gun at him, but he was able to make a shred assessment of his passengers:

They were completely dumbfounded by the situation they were in. There was disbelief written all over their faces. I think they were terrified and close to despair. They seemed to get smaller and smaller as they sat in the car. We continued down the next road… Ceausescu asked me if I knew what had happened. I replied that I had been on duty at the hospital all night and had no idea. He said, ‘there was a coup’, and lapsed into silence. Later he turned to me and said, ‘we’re going to organise the resistance. Are you coming with us?’ …I ended up by saying, ‘Anyway I’m not even a Party member.’ That seemed to come as a real blow to him. He went white and refused to say any more.

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Above: BBC crew member, Tira,  with Dr Deca, who later came under suspicion of having been a Securitate supporter; no doubt it was untrue, but in the hysterical atmosphere of the time the fact that he had been forced to drive the Ceausescus was used as evidence against him. 

Ceausescu probably thought the Army had seized power. He had always been afraid of that, and had been particularly anxious about Soviet control over his high command, ever since his resistance to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Later, he seems to have believed that Gorbachev was planning to overthrow him. The idea of a mass rebellion by the ordinary people of the country doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind. Having initially been told by Marian that he was taking his passengers to the militia headquarters in Gaesti,  Neagoe now told Dr Deca to turn in the direction of Tergoviste.  Deca told them that the car was breaking down and pulled over when he saw a friend washing his car by the side of the road, to ask him for help. Neagoe told this man, Nikolae Petrisor, to get into his car and take the three of them with him. Throughout the journey, Elena Ceausescu held a gun to the back of his neck. Her husband asked him if there was a good place for them to hide, possibly in a village. Petrisor replied that, by now, everyone knew the couple was in the locality. General Neagoe suggested going to a steel works at Tergoviste, because he knew the security people there. On the outskirts, they ran into a group of workers who were on strike. They recognised Ceausescu and started throwing stones at the car. Elena told her husband to take of his coat and they hunched down in the seats and hid their faces. A little further on, Neagoe got out to check directions, but some children recognised them and Elena told Petrisor to drive on, leaving the general on the roadside.

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Above: Nikolae Petrisor and the car in which he drove the Ceausecus to eventual capture and imprisonment.

After that they tried to take refuge in a nunnery, but the nuns refused, hardly surprising given Ceausescu’s persecution of the churches. Even a hotel for Communist Party officials told them there was no room. Finally, their unwilling driver, Nikolae Petrisor, turned into the driveway of an agricultural institute just outside Tergoviste, where he knew the staff. It was 3 p.m. The director of the institute, Victor Seinescu, was watching the reports on the TV, including the latest one that the Ceausescus had been arrested in Tergoviste. Seinescu had been a member of the Communist Party, but had been thrown out a decade earlier. Suddenly, Petrisor burst into the room and announced, I’ve got the Ceausescus in the back of my car! The director told Petrisor to bring them in, which he did. Seinescu then got on the phone to his boss, who told him to hang on until the police got there. They arrived at 3.20 p.m. and took the couple to the old cavalry school near the railway station which had become an army barracks. This was where the Ceausescus were held for the next two days and nights.

On Christmas Eve the Securitate troops finally worked out where the Ceausescus were being held, and took up positions around the base. Soon after darkness fell they opened fire. You can still see the bullet marks on the front and sides of the headquarters building: there are several hundred of them. The captured couple were hurried out and put for safety into an armoured personnel carrier, which parked in as sheltered a place as possible. They spent the night there and the following morning they were driven back to the headquarters building and taken to a room which was used as a lecture room. The tables ad chairs had been arranged to form a rudimentary court, with a dock formed by two desks and chairs in one corner. A prominent lawyer in his late fifties, Nicu Teodorescu, was sent from Bucharest the ninety miles to Tergoviste by military escort, to represent the Ceausescus. He arrived to find them already sitting in the makeshift courtroom. There were five judges, all senior army officers in uniform, two prosecutors, a junior to help Teodorescu with the defence and a young officer with a video camera, whose job it was to record the proceedings but not show any of the participants except for the defendants themselves. There were no witnesses. The couple had been examined by a doctor and he had pronounced them fit to stand trial. Teodorescu told them their only hope was to plead insanity. Not surprisingly, they were deeply insulted by this suggestion.

001On the left is the still from the official video of them at their court-martial for crimes against their own people. Nicolae places his hand on Elena’s. It was probably less from affection than from a desire to stop her getting into an unprofitable argument with their accusers, but they always showed their affection for each other.

They refused to accept the legality of the military tribunal. After a hasty trial, their end was shabby and terrible. The Ceausescus’ hands were tied behind their backs. Elena wept, but then swore at the soldier tying her up. They were led down the corridor and out onto the yard of the barracks. The Ceausescus apparently had no idea that they were to be executed immediately. On the parade ground, fifty yards away, they could see the helicopter which had brought two members of the National Salvation Front from Bucharest to attend the trial. Assuming that they were to be taken somewhere in it, the Ceausescus headed towards it. Lt-Col. Mares gently but firmly directed them down another path that led to the yard. The entire complement of the base, soldiers and civilians, had been drawn up in a large semi-circle to watch. The television cameraman who had filmed the trial had some difficulty with his equipment, and failed to record anything except the last few seconds of the execution. Nevertheless, pictures of their bodies were shown on Romanian television and throughout the world soon afterwards.

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By Christmas Night, the Romanian television staff hadn’t slept in a bed for three nights. One of them, a woman in her fifties, fell asleep while speaking to the co-ordinators of the satellite in Geneva. Ten minutes before the BBC link to London was due, the Romanian announcer began reading a statement live on air. Everyone in the control room was standing, silent and shocked. The list of charges for which the Ceausescus were to be tried – the murder of sixty thousand people, sabotaging the national economy and corruption – had just been read out. The newsreader continued:

For these serious crimes committed against the Romanian people and Romania, the accused, Nicolae Ceausescu and Elena Ceausescu, were sentenced to death and confiscation. The sentences were final and were carried out.

The tired men and women of Romanian Television broke into spontaneous applause. John Simpson threw away most of what he had written and rapidly sketched out a portrait of a man and woman corrupted by absolute power. With a minute to go to the BBC’s satellite broadcast, he finished, sat back and looked down. He had written Ceausescu’s obituary with the pen he had been ‘given’ in their private apartment, which had been presented to the dictator by the British Labour Party, though they later denied having any record of its presentation.

That night the mild weather which had made the revolution possible came to an end. It froze, then snowed hard. Later on Christmas night the television station showed an edited version of the Ceausescu’s trial, and of their bodies lying in the snow. People all over the world competed with each other to condemn the couple: even those – especially those – who had given them gifts. No one wanted to think of the ghastly museum in Bucharest which housed the trophies from his good relations with the outside world: with, in pride of place, the insignia of an honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath which the British government had insisted that the Queen should give him (against her will) in 1978. The museum was shut. It must have been a relief to a good many politicians and civil servants who watched their televisions in Western Europe that night that it was impossible to provide pictures of the honours they had showered on him little more than a decade before.

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The Ceausescus’ bodies were flown back by helicopter to Bucharest and the next day, the day of St Stephen the Martyr, 26 December, they were taken to a cemetery on the outskirts of the capital where they were buried a hundred metres apart, with rough wooden crosses marking the graves. With them was buried the socialist republic of Romania. Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania had turned from a Marxist-Leninist state into an expression of the personality of its leader, more like Mussolini’s Italy, rather than an ideological entity. Unlike in Prague, there was no Dubcek, no Good King Wenceslas to step back into his own footsteps on the Feast of Stephen. With the leader’s death, the socialist facade in Romania crumbled away almost immediately and left scarcely a trace behind itself. Apart from the borrowing of a few words from Russian and a few props and symbols, it was, to all intents and purposes, a fascist state. As writer and sociologist, a gypsy by birth, commented to John Simpson as they walked down the marble staircase at the Central Committee building:

We Romanians will always suffer as a result of Ceausescu. He made everyone afraid of everybody else, and he made it impossible for any of us to take our own decisions, to think or act for ourselves. Ceausescu is inside every one of us, and we haven’t killed him yet. If we had given him a proper trial, we might have dealt with him. Now we can’t. That is his revenge on all of us.

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Above: Ceausescu in one of his many games rooms

John Simpson’s obituary concluded:

The Ceausescus were evil and vicious. An entire nation was imprisoned, went hungry, and lived in the half-light because of them. Yet their lives and deaths weren’t small or squalid. Nicolae Ceausescu was a tragic hero along the lines that some grand, out of date Shakespearian scholar… would have recognised. It was the heroic Ceausescu, the man who stood on his balcony and defied the Russians when they invaded Czechoslovakia, whom the Western world praised and rewarded… the single tragic fault that turned noble defiance into savagery… was Ceausescu’s vanity… fed by an assumption that he was invulnerable.

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Above: The Securitate commanders of Timisoara on trial. The similarity with Nuremberg was deliberate

At the beginning of 1989 the Iron Curtain still divided Europe, as it had done for more than forty years. By the end of the year, the leaders of every Eastern European nation except Bulgaria, which soon followed suit, had been ousted by popular uprisings; in every case the will of the people had prevailed and, except in Romania, hardly a drop of blood had been spilt. With dizzying speed, the Soviet Union’s European empire, the buffer zone ruthlessly built up by Stalin and maintained with brutal force when necessary by his successors, had collapsed like a house of cards. Truly, 1989 was an annus mirabilis. 

Sources:

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Transworld Publications.

John Simpson (1990), Dispatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.

   

 

The History of the Carol, from the Preface of ‘The Oxford Book of Carols’.   1 comment

It is difficult, if not impossible, to find any example of an authentic carol which can with certainty be dated earlier than 1400 (Chaucer’s roundel of c.1382… has to be arranged in order to be sung as a carol)… the oldest of our carols date from the fifteenth century.

The carol was in fact a sign, like the mystery play, of the emancipation of the people from the old puritanism which had for so many centuries suppressed the dance and the drama, denounced communal singing, and warred against the tendency of the people to disport themselves in church on the festivals.

… No doubt in the Middle Ages, as under the Roundheads, such objections often found justification in the excesses of popular merriment. But even in the twelfth century and even in church the instinct for dramatic expression was in revolt, as we find Abbot Aelred of Rievaulx complaining of chanters who gesticulated and grimaced while singing the sacred offices, and imitated the sound of thunder, of women’s voices, and of the neighing of horses. In other and more seemly ways, anthems, sequences and tropes were sung with increasing dramatic emphasis, till from them the mystery play developed. The struggle went on, and the Muses gradually won: about the time when the English barons rose against King John, Pope Innocent III forbad ‘ludi theatrales’ in church, and his order was repeated by Gregory IX. By this time the mystery play had become in many places a real form of drama, performed outside the church. France, which was ahead of England with the play (as Germany seems to have been more than a generation ahead with the carol), had a secular drama in the thirteenth century, four examples of which, by Adam the Hunchback (1288) and others, survive. English drama in the literary sense dates from about the year 1300; the Guilds took up the mystery play and brought it to full flower, gradually increasing the secular element at the same time: the York and Towneley Plays date from 1340 to 1350, the Chester Plays are c. 1400, and the Coventry Plays ran from 1400 to 1450; the old drama thus reached the top of its vigour in the fifteenth century. Such developments led naturally to the writing of religious songs in the vernacular, as in the Coventry Carol and also to the gradual substitution of folk-song and dance tunes for the winding cadences of liturgical music. The time was ripe for the carol. 

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The carol arose with the ballad in the fifteenth century, because people wanted something less severe than the old Latin office hymns, something more vivacious than the plainsong melodies. This century rang up the modern era: it was the age of the all-pervading Chaucerian influence and of the spread of humanism in England, where it culminates in the New Learning under Grocyn, Warham, Linacre and Colet: in Italy the fifteenth century began with the full flood of the Renaissance, and Leonardo was in his prime when he ended: before its close, printed books were familiar objects, and the New World had been discovered. Our earliest carols are taken from manuscripts of this century and from the collection which Richard Hill, the grocer’s apprentice… made at the beginning of the sixteenth. The earliest printed collection which has survived (and that only in one of its leaves containing one of the Boar’s Head Carols,… and ‘a caroll of hyntynge’) was issued in 1521 by Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton’s apprentice and successor. A later extant collection was printed by Richard Kele, c.1550.

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The carol continued to flourish through the sixteenth century, and until… puritanism in a new form suppressed it in the seventeenth. In the year 1644 the unfortunate people of England had to keep Christmas Day as a fast, because it happened to fall on the last Wednesday in the month – the day which the Long Parliament had ordered to be kept as a monthly fast. In 1647 the Puritan Parliament abolished Christmas and other festivals altogether. The new Puritan point of view is neatly expressed by Hezekiah Woodward, who in a tract of 1656 calls Christmas Day,

‘the old Heathen’s Feasting Day, in honour to Saturn their Idol-God, the Papist’s Massing Day, the Profane Man’s Ranting Day, the Superstitious Man’s Idol Day, the Multitude’s Idle Day, Stan’s – that Adversary’s – Working Day, the True Christian Man’s Fasting Day… We are persuaded, no one thing more hindereth the Gospel work all year long, than doth the observation of that Idol Day once a year, having so many days of cursed observation with it.’

Thus, most of our old carols were made during the two centuries and a half between the death of Chaucer in 1400 and the ejection of the Reverend Robert Herrick from his parish by Oliver Cromwell’s men in 1647.

Meanwhile the old carols travelled underground and were preserved in folk-song, the people’s memory of the texts being kept alive by humble broadsheets of indifferent exactitude which appeared annually in various parts of the country. 

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A Time for Remembering – All Hallows to Bonfire Night: a teaching text and task, plus pictures   1 comment

All Hallows Eve (Hallowe’en), October 31st

All Hallows Day/ All Saints Day, November 1st

All Souls Day, November 2nd

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These festivals all have a common theme. They mark the coming of Winter, and the need for light and warmth as the nights get longer and the days colder. It is also a time for remembering. In this time, the Church remembers all those who have died, not just the great saints, but also those who are only remembered by their own families. Some of the acts of remembrance have their origins, or beginnings, in pre-Christian, or ‘pagan’ times.

Hallowe’en was the eve of the Celtic New Year, the Autumn festival in honour of the sun god, giving thanks for the harvest. The central part of the ceremony was the lighting of a bonfire celebrating Samhain, the lord of death, at the dying of the year, when he called together the souls of the ‘wicked’, or evil spirits, who were condemned to live in the bodies of animals. In Ireland, until recent times, the festival was a time for night walks and dressing up, wearing masks and telling stories about ghosts and witches. The games, still played today, included ‘bobbing for apples’, when children try to get apples out of a barrel of water using only their teeth. The parties are held by candlelight, with the candles shaded in lanterns made from vegetables which cast strange patterns against walls. Today, these are made from pumpkins, giving the celebrations the orange colours to go with the black. The lanterns were carried from door to door, with the children singing and dancing, rewarded for their efforts by a candle or a coin. This tradition survives in the ‘trick or treat’ custom, when the householder pays up to avoid having a trick played on them. The Irish people who settled in the USA took this custom with them, and it is still popular there today. It has also become a custom in Britain, where lantern-making and apple-bobbing were the main activities before.

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All Saints Day is the one celebration, other than Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, which Catholics and Protestants have shared throughout the centuries in Britain and Ireland. Only the patron saints of the four countries are remembered on other days, but All Saints was a day for remembering all worthy Christians. On All Souls Day the Church remembers all those who have died. In the past, candles were lit and the home is made clean and tidy, so that the souls of the dead could visit. These days, in some churches, people give in the names of people they wish to be remembered in special prayers.



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Bonfire Night comes at a good mid-way point between the end of Summer and Christmas as an excuse for a big bonfire and a lot of fun with fireworks and food, including burgers, sausages and hot potatoes with butter. Originally, an ‘effigy’ of Guy Fawkes was put on top of the fire and burnt to remember that on 4th November 1605 Guy, or Guido, was discovered underneath the House of Parliament with a large number of barrels of gunpowder. He later confessed, after torture, that he intended to use them to blow up the Palace of Westminster when the King was due to open Parliament the next morning, killing the King, his sons and his noble lords.

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November;

Gunpowder, treason and plot!

I see no reason why Gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!”

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‘Guy’ had been hired by a group of Catholic gentlemen from the Midlands, who were disappointed with King James for breaking his promise to allow them to worship in freedom. They planned to kill him and his sons and put his nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Stuart, on the throne in his place. She was living at a house in the Midlands, near Coventry, with her tutor. The conspirators had to work in secret, of course, because they knew that many Catholics, as well as Protestants, would not support their ‘Plot’.  Robert Catesby was the leader of the Catholic gentlemen in this. Guy Fawkes, a soldier, was the Gunpowder expert. He took the name of John Johnson and pretended to be a servant of Thomas Percy, who was renting a house next to the Parliament building, then a much smaller one than the one we know today. Percy was responsible for the action in London, while Catesby gathered the ‘gentry’ and their servants near Coventry and provided them with horses and weapons. However, in order to provide all this, too many people were told about the Plot, and Robert Cecil, James’ ‘spy-master’ found out about it from one of the Catholic lords, a relative of one of the plotters, who was warned to stay away from the opening of Parliament.

 

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English: The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, ...

English: The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, Laing Art Gallery (Tyne and Wear Museums) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just before midnight on the eve of November 5th, Guy Fawkes was arrested in the cellar below Westminster Palace in London, and the gunpowder barrels were uncovered. Fawkes was carrying a lantern, which can still be seen in the University of Oxford’s Library. He was tortured in the Tower of London, but did not give the names of his fellow-conspirators. They went on with their plan to seize the Princess Elizabeth the next day, but she had already been moved into the walled city of Coventry for safe-keeping. They rode through the Midlands, desperately trying to get support, but the Sheriff of Worcester’s men eventually cornered them at Holbeach House. Making a heroic, but hopeless, last stand, they were either shot or captured. Those who survived were tried and executed, along with Fawkes, who had already confessed. They were all hung by the neck, cut down while still alive, dragged through the streets of London until dead, and their bodies were cut into quarters. This was what happened to those found guilty of ‘treason’ against their king. People everywhere in Britain were horrified when the news of the plot spread, and bonfires were lit everywhere in joy at the survival of the King, his children, and his Parliament.

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Effigies of Guy Fawkes were burnt on the bonfires, beginning a tradition which has continued for four hundred years until quite recently. To this day, when the monarch opens Parliament, the royal guard make a thorough search of the buildings for any modern-day terrorist and explosives. ‘Guys’ are still made by children in the week before Bonfire Night, and are paraded in the streets where passers-by are asked for ‘a penny for the guy’. Firework manufacturers also do well at this time of year, but serious accidents have led to restrictions in recent years, and most people now attend safe, professional firework displays, rather than holding parties in their back gardens as they did before. The biggest danger now comes from the fires themselves, with smoke drifting across motorways and main roads. Most people have long ago given up the anti-Catholic purpose of the event. Now, it simply provides a welcome and warming opportunity for coming together at what can be a miserable time of year, as Winter weather, with cold winds and hard rain, takes hold. The smoky atmosphere of a bonfire is ideal for enjoying sizzling sausages and buttered potatoes ‘baked in the jacket’.

Lewes Bonfire, Guy Fawkes effigy


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However, the British haven’t entirely forgotten the plan to blow up Parliament and steal the young Princess Elizabeth from her tutor’s house, eventually to be made Queen Elizabeth II, a queen who would tolerate Catholics. In fact, she was a strong Protestant herself by this time, and her tutor, Lord Harington, wrote a letter a few months later in which he reported that she often said:

“What a Queen I would have been by these means. I would rather have been with my Royal Father in the Parliament House, than wear his crown on such a condition.”

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Eight years later, on Valentine’s Day 1613, aged sixteen, she was married from her apartments in Whitehall in London (in what is now Downing Street, home of the Prime Minister), to the German Protestant Prince Frederick, and went to live with him in his fairy-tale castle at Heidelberg. He had a whole new ‘wing’ of the castle specially built for her. They later became the King and Queen of Bohemia until they were forced to flee after just one winter on the throne by the invading Hapsburgs. When Frederick was killed in battle trying to regain his kingdom, Heidelberg was also reduced to ruins by the Emperor’s army, and Elizabeth was forced to find refuge with her Dutch relatives in the Hague, where she became known as ‘the Queen of Hearts’, because what she lacked in money she made up for in her love for all around her, and she was much-loved in return. She was unable to return to England when Civil War broke out there, but her sons, Maurice and Rupert, born in Germany, went back to fight as ‘cavaliers’ for her younger brother, Charles Stuart. King Charles I declared war on Parliament, eventually losing to Oliver Cromwell’s ‘roundheads’ in 1648. He was tried and beheaded in 1649. Elizabeth did eventually return following the restoration of the monarchy in England under her nephew, Charles II, in 1660. When the last of the Stuart monarchs, Queen Anne, died in 1714, without children to succeed her, Elizabeth’s grandson, George I, became the first Hanoverian monarch of Great Britain. The current Queen, the real Elizabeth II, is directly descended from his German family.

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Student  Task (complete for homework):

Imagine you in England on a school trip in November and have just attended Bonfire Night with your English host family. Write an e-mail to your brother, sister, or best friend in English, telling them the story of the Gunpowder Plot. Then describe how you saw November 5th being celebrated. (250-400 words).

Sources:

Robin Moore,  A History of Coombe Abbey, Coventry, 1983

Alice Buchan, A Stuart Portrait, London, 1934

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