My work at Suffield also takes place outside the chapel. A garrison padre’s lot is generally a quite one. People are busy in their workshops and offices, and other than sports and social events, it’s harder to visit the troops than it is in the field, where most people stand around between sort bursts of strenuous activity. Fortunately, there’s Christmas, or “silly season” as the troops call it.
The army has its own Christmas traditions, including “subbies’ carolling”, a night in which the junior officers (“subbie” from the English word “subaltern” meaning a young lieutenant) visit the senior officers’ homes in ascending order, ending with the colonel. At each stop the young gentlemen stand on the porch, bawl out a carol, and then are invited in for festive cheer. Rather a lot of drinking happens, and by the time the night ends at the colonel’s house, chaps are often quite fare gone, and often rack their brains the next morning, wondering if they did anything at the boss’ house that will compromise their careers. We did our carolling the first week of December, and I embraced the thankless ministry of the designated driver. One of our captains ended his night in a spectacular degree of inebriation requiring casualty evacuation, so I never did make it to the colonel’s house, but the stories I heard. There are stories about me from a previous year, involving a teddy beer, but don’t believe them.
Another Christmas tradition in the army is the soldier’s Christmas dinner, in which the officers and NCOs serve a Christmas dinner to the junior ranks (corporals and privates). Several customs are often observed during this event. Promotions are announced, and the oldest and youngest junior ranks are invited to sit at the head table. The Colonel and the youngest private exchange tunics, and the young soldier gets to be the CO for an hour or two, in a military version of the Lord of Misrule.
I don’t know the age of this tradition, which most likely has its origins in the Vctorian era, when Christmas began to be widely sentimentalized. In the Canadian army it is a tradition of some age, and its most famous observance was during the Battle of Ortona, Italy, in 1943.
Members of the Seaforth Highlanders sit down for their Christmas dinner.
Photo: Terry F. Rowe / Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-152839
Our own Christmas dinner saw Canadian and British soldiers sharing the same tables, and being generally well behaved, knowng that their RSM’s eagle eye would catch anyone who started a foodfight. The food was excellent, and the soldiers enjoyed several cans of beer along with turkey and all the trimmings, as well as Christmas crackers.
Something I like to do at Suffield when I am called upon to say grace is to write some sort of rhyming grace that captures the spirit of the occasion, on the theory that people are more likely to listen to a grace if it is humorous and interesting. Here is my attempt for this year’s soldier’s Christmas dinner. The reference to hockey is to the Suffield ice hockey tournament (privates vs corporals vs sergeants/warrants vs officers that occurs the morning of the Christmas dinner.
Put down your tools, ignore the phone,
In a week or so we’re going home.
Today’s a day for food and cheer,
For the holidays are drawing near.
May this morning’s hockey rivalry,
Give way to festive revelry.
May we who traded shots on goal
Now say “Happy Christmas” and “Noel”.
God bless all who serve, as they are able,
And bless each Canuck and squaddie at the table.
Lord, be with us as we take our ease,
And guard our comrades overseas.
Once the soldiers are dismissed to their afternoon off work, the high priced help gets busy with mop and dishrag, and once the mess is cleaned, the tradition of the Mess At Home begins. This year it was the Officers’ turn to be invited to the Warrants’ and Sergeants’ mess for a reception.
Usually for these visits there is a price of admission, some act or performance that shows had badly the visitors want in. My task, along with a young REME lieutenant named Andy, was to come up with a Christmas song. After a few dead ends I remembered the carol from the Christmas truce scene in the 1968 Richard Attenborough film, Oh What A Lovely War.
Our singing wasn’t nearly as good as harmonies in the film. However, this is what Andy and I came up with, helped by a few other submissions.
<p>It was Christmas time at BATUS*, the happiest day of the year,
Men’s hearts were full of gladness and their bellies full of beer,
When up spoke RSM McCormack, his face as bold as brass,
Saying “We don’t want your Christmas pudding, you can stick it up your …
TIDINGS OF COMFORT AND JOY, COMFORT AND JOY, OH TIDINGS OF COMFORT AND JOY
Now there were several sergeants, an elk** they swore to get
They booked the day off sick and got on the internet.
So sorry RSM Reid, that you didn’t get to hunt,
Pity that your elk as gone, to some civvie …
TIDINGS OF …..
Nw there were several Warrant Officers, who guessed they might promote
Totty, Emerson and Robbo are but three to note
Early Xmas pressie time, for them as you could tell,
But we are also winners, cos they need to ring the …***
TIDINGS OF ……
MNow the Sergeants and the Warrants they are thick as thieves,
Lots of dirty tricks they have hidden up their sleeves.
When they’re playing hockey they love an illegal hit
Peace on earth to all … they couldn’t give a ….
TIDINGS OF ………..
Don Reid is off to study French, the Base would go to hell,
Were not for the efforts of that gallant gunner, Bell.
Now some may wonder how he got to carry that pace stick,****
The answer’s very simple, they chose the biggest …
TIDINGS OF …….
And now our song comes to an end, we hope it brought you cheer,
Now open up the bloody doors, and give us food and beer.
Perhaps you didn’t like our rhymes, perhaps you thought they suck,
It makes no difference to us, cos we don’t give a …
TIDINGS OF ……….
*BATUS = British Army Training Unit Suffield
**elk = tragedy this fall when no one at the base won an online competition to get a hunting license for one of the elk in the Suffield training area
***ring the bell = a costly mess tradition, when one is promoted, where you have to ring a bell at the bar signifying that you will buy everyone a drink
****pace stick = the ceremonial stick, used to measure pace length for drill, identifying the senior noncommissioned officer in a base or formation
Our singing did get us admission, even though it was dismissed by our British senior host as “a crap song that someone wrote”, but to actually enter the building we had to crawl through an obstacle course involving tables, camo nets, shots of alcohol and custard powder (a long story). Once inside, my memory gets rather hazy, but I did meet up with my friend Andy the REME officer, and I was saddened to see that someone had taken a set of clippers to one side of his spectacular wax moustache, a holdover from Movember that we had all become quite proud of.
“My subject is war, and the pity of war.”
And that, gentle reader, pretty much exhausts the subject of what I did at Christmas at Suffield this year. After tomorrow’s service I’ll shut down the chapel, as the Base and the married quarters will be pretty much deserted, and I’ll devoutly pray that my pager remains silent as everyone enjoys a safe and happy holidays.