West Van's firefighters are second to none, the first on the scene when our families, our homes and everything we have are at risk of being swallowed up by the darkest turns of fate. It takes an uncommon person to make a profession out of putting everything he or she is on the line to pull us out of harms way. The fact that people choose this profession is something of a miracle. But it is in the nature of a miracle to pull us up short, to make sure if only for a moment we see the uncommon power of it, to push aside any drift to ingratitude with a sense of wonder.
This is the feeling we had this morning, under a bright early winter sun on Dundarave Beach, when an army of firefighters arrived to help us plant a forest of Christmas trees. In our family, we say eagles are like angels: there are always more around than you can see. Same goes for firefighters. We were told to expect four, but two firetrucks hauled their gleaming red mass to the beach and in a heartbeat we were surrounded by the men and women of the WVFD. Mario Russell, the exclusive provider of trees for the Festival from his -- unrivaled for the excellence of its trees -- Valley View Tree Farm, had just delivered a record number of trees for the Dundarave Festival. In less than half the time it took us in previous seasons, the Firefighters raised them into a forest working side by side with Venturer Scouts, students from St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School, École Pauline Johnson, and the Knights of Columbus. The work went swiftly because of the loving attention Chris and his crews from Great Canadian Landscaping had brought to the site the morning before, prepping the holes in a biting rain. It went swiftly because of the support the Festival's received from West Van's municipal staff. And it was finished in a twinkling because of our firefighters.
These trees, in the words of the Lookout Society's eminent executive director, Karen O'Shannacery, have a "miraculous effect" on the lives of the most vulnerable people in our community. The need was unmistakable even this morning, as we arrived to find evidence that someone had passed the sub zero night sleeping under the great Alder tree at Dundarave Beach. We can measure the miracle in the $75,000 the trees have raised through three Christmases for the North Shore Shelter, and the signs that we're on our way to adding to this total. But the more reliable measure of this "miraculousness" is the way the trees make visible something that could pass without notice, the way the pull us up short and call us to a sense of wonder against the numbing ingratitude of ordinary time. They forced into plain sight our friendship, a deeper understanding of the fact that the only way we can be human is to be human together -- with each other and for each other. Putting this forest in place this morning allowed us to see -- against the evils that can happen to us without warning -- that it is a beautiful thing to be human.
The 20th Anniversary of the Dundarave Festival of Lights began auspiciously, with a host of firefighters planting a forest of miracles on Dundarave Beach. Its in our hands now to answer this with generous, open and beautiful humanity.
Colour Guard, Remembrance Day 2011, West Vancouver
The world had never before seen the destruction of human life by human hands on the scale of this war, the world's first global war. Canada's last known World War I veteran, John Babcock, died in February, 2010 at the age of 109 years, taking with him the last living memory we have of the war that did not end all wars, but forever changed the nature of war. It brought an end to the possibility of containing war to discrete battles fought with brutal but limited weapons, ushering in an era of war on a planetary scale waged with weapons of mass destruction that target even now every human being, every living thing. It made the world incarnadine. Understanding this is essential if we are to come to terms with the significance of what men of Mr. Babcock's era, ally and enemy alike, did on the battlefield of the Ypres Salient to mark the Christmas of 1914.
The fighting had commenced in October of that year. Of the 48,000 soldiers in the German Army Corps, the vast majority were young volunteers between 17 and 19 years old. This was the "child army", the "Kinderkorps". Before the arrival of the 1st Canadian Division in February 1915, to face later that spring Germany's use of deadly chlorine gas, British forces with French reinforcements and the Indian Army prevented the Germans from seizing the town of Ypres. Within the first six weeks of fighting, the allies suffered the loss of 80,000 men. On either side of the flat "no man's land", both forces struggled against heavy winter rains to dig themselves into trenches, holes the inexorable weather reduced to quagmires. Both armies were shouting distance from each other, and when they sang their music would cross no man's land sometimes to be answered by applause. Against this, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the Second British Corps, issued a strict prohibition against any form of fraternization with the enemy because of "the absolute necessity of encouraging the offensive spirit of the troops."
Recognizing the scale of the killing, on December 7th 1914 Pope Benedict XV proposed a global armistice to allow the celebration of Christmas. The German command agreed, but the leadership of the Allies refused. The families of soldiers on both sides sent their loved ones Christmas presents, small comforts against the killing and the cold and their homelessness in the trenches. On Christmas Eve, the Allied soldiers watched what at first might have been an especially cruel feint as the German forces, the Kindercorps, raised hundreds up of candle lit Christmas trees to the parapets of their trenches. And then they began to sing, "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schläft; einsam wacht [...]". The British command ordered their soldiers not to fire, but to remain vigilant. And then the British soldiers, against orders, answered with carols of their own. Both sides emerged from their trenches to shake hands, trade beer and gifts, and breathe in peace the air of this holy night.
To the list of momentous things not to be forgotten this Remembrance Day, let us not forget this Christmas miracle of 1914 when the light of Christmas trees answered the challenge of a pope: to bring a generation of men at war to taste the peace of Christmas. This was a night made holy and all the sweeter because in that wilderness of the Ypres Salient they discovered the wildest thing of all: the spirit of Christmas that cannot be contained by orders, that will in a heartbeat reveal an enemy to be a friend, and restore against the barbarous logic of war the beauty of being human.
For these soldiers, then, claim now a Christmas tree of your own in the Dundarave Festival of Lights. Hold them close to you when you walk the forest of Christmas trees on Dundarave Beach this Christmas Eve. War is not over; hunger, oppression and homelessness remain. It is in our hands, moved by a courage bigger than any one of us, by a spirit as ancient as it is young, to find ways to live for each other, to call each other to a deep, brave and powerful understanding of what it means to be human.
The jack o'lanterns have had their moment to shine, but in the cool light of November 1st Hallowe'en is so yesterday. We're in a fast sprint now, faster than a sleigh drawn by "eight tiny reindeer", to Christmas as you've never seen it before.
In twenty-five days, on Saturday November 26th, the Dundarave Festival of Lights rolls out its 20th season. It will connect us with the eternally young face of Christmas. From ancient traditions to modern twists, bold bonfires on the beach to the intimacy of a ballad in the Festival Longhouse, all of the joy, peace and promise of the season will find us, shake us out, deepen our connections to each other and to our communities. We'll rock this Christmas by allowing the season to rock us. And we will do it together, by making sure no one is left out in the cold.
Click the "Sign Me UP" button now to claim a Festival tree of your own. Use it to send your best wishes for the season, by letting your love shine out, in the Festival's forest of Christmas trees on Dundarave Beach. Your tree will reach over 65,000 people who make pilgrimages to this forest throughout the holidays. Your tree will be a beacon of hope for the hundreds of people who are homeless and at risk of homelessness in our community, by raising charitable donations to support the Lookout Emergency Aid Society's labour of love on the North Shore.
And join us on Saturday November 26th for the Dundarave Christmas Fair, the launch of an unforgettably beautiful Christmas 2011, the season of love that is seeking us out even now, as the days grow shorter and the winds turn cold.
The Dundarave Festival Society
We are a circle of friends working in the Dundarave Festival of Lights Society to bring to life the promise of Christmas in our community, a season of life, passion and purpose that leaves no one in the cold. This is community-driven social change, in the true spirit of Christmas and the best spirit of our community.