Joe Barrera: The Christmas Truce

It was not the same as the famous WWI Christmas Truce of 1914 on the Western Front, when French and British soldiers came out of the trenches and mingled with their German enemies, exchanging gifts and singing Christmas carols, to the consternation of their commanders. The truce in my war was a ceasefire nevertheless. At least for a few hours, or even for a day or two, depending on where you were. The ceasefire had been announced by both the U.S. and South Vietnam. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese agreed to it, somewhat reluctantly. They immediately violated it, firing their ubiquitous mortars at U.S. base camps. That was our version of events. The VC and the NVA said that we were the instigators.

Christmas Flower

Christmas 1967 was a clear, peaceful, sunlit day. We were set up on a hilltop near the Laotian border somewhere west of the 4th Division’s 1st Brigade Base Camp at Dak To in the mountainous Central Highlands of South Vietnam. The series of bloody hill fights known as the Battle of Dak To had terminated a few weeks earlier. Like other battles far away and long ago, Dak To is largely forgotten. I cannot forget it and I am forever sorrowful because too many comrades died. The NVA mauled the 173rd Airborne Brigade on Hill 875 and 3/8th Infantry of the 4th Division at Hill 1338. 1/8th Infantry, my unit, had been involved on 1338, and firefights, ambushes, mortar and recoilless rifle attacks on unnamed hilltops. Now we dug in, licking our wounds and wondering when the next attack would come out of the North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Laos. Soldiers always know it. They had deliberately put us out there. We were the bait to entice the North Vietnamese out of their holes.

But for a short time the Prince of Peace reigned. Out of the bright blue sky a double-rotor Chinook helicopter swooped down and landed at the LZ we had hacked out of the thick forest. The ramp lowered and crewmen pushed bulging orange-colored sacks onto the ground. They ran back into the cavernous hold and emerged carrying mermite cans full of hot food. People we never saw out in the field appeared: the company XO, the supply sergeant, the mess sergeant, the company clerk, and the usual shammers and profile-wavers. These base camp commandos lined up the mermite cans, broke out the paper plates and proceeded to serve the less-fortunate grunt infantry Christmas dinner, turkey with all the trimmings. Others opened the orange sacks and out tumbled cardboard boxes, packages from home. The Army had come through. We were not forgotten after all.

I got two packages. The smaller one was from my lady love in Mercedes, the little dust-blown south Texas town five miles north of the Rio Grande. In 1750 my ancestors had settled on the north bank of the Big River, on “la merced,” the Spanish land grant which gave the town its name. I remembered my great-grandfather’s land. But he lost it to the American taxes he never understood. How I longed to be back there, dust notwithstanding. The bigger package was from my Dad, stationed with the Army in Kaiserslautern. The whole family was in K-Town, frolicking with the frauleins. I could have gone with them but I chose Vietnam instead. My girl had sent stationary, pens, envelopes, and sweet-smelling lotion-saturated wipes. She was ready for the first kiss and knew that I had not bathed in months. My father’s box was full of canned Mexican goodies, tortillas, hot sauce, tamales, cinnamon-laced chocolate, all the usual Mexican Christmas delicacies. How did he get all that stuff in Germany? That must have been some commissary in Kaiserslautern.

 

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Joe Barrera: Christmas in South Texas

Growing up in south Texas in the 50’s we used to get Christmas presents on three different days. First there was the feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6. Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop who gave gifts to poor people, is the original gift-giver whose name has morphed from the Dutch Sinter Klaas into Santa Claus. Because of him people in Europe give and receive gifts. A remnant Spanish custom survived in our small town and the children got gifts on December 6. I remember getting oranges and apples in my stocking, but never the proverbial lump of coal that the  bad kids were supposed to get. For many of the older Mexican people Dec. 6 embodied the spirit of the season, whereas Christmas was the American celebration. All the Christmas customs, the gift-giving, the decorations, etc. were absent. We didn’t have a Christmas tree, for instance, until sometime in the late 50’s. My mother found a dried branch  from the huge pecan tree in the yard. She brought it inside the house, painted it white and hung Christmas lights on it. That was the first Christmas tree I remember. It looked beautiful. Gradually, Christmas presents began to appear under the tree. By the early 60’s most of the old customs had died out and the new Christmas had taken over.

Nativity

The real celebration of “Christ’s Mass” was at church. “Misa de Gallo,” midnight mass on Christmas Eve was the important occasion and even the little kids would attend. The highlight was the procession of the children to the empty manger, to lay down the image of Baby Jesus. After mass everyone would go home and eat tamales and drink the powerful cinnamon-laced Mexican chocolate. That stuff could keep you up all night but of course that was not allowed for the children. The men had gone deer hunting and brought back plenty of venison. The women had spent hours in the kitchen marinating the meat and putting it into the corn dough wrapped in corn husks and then steaming the tamales in huge pots. There is nothing more delicious than venison tamales. For days afterward we would be eating tamales. At Christmas women ruled the house. I remember my mother and her “comadres,” which literally means “co-mothers,” making untold dozens of tamales and enjoying their sisterhood time. I sneaked in just to listen to them talk, but men were not allowed in the kitchen.

The twelve days of Christmas, December.25-January 6, had real meaning in those times. There was the joy of Christmas, but mixed with sadness, as all earthly experience must be. We remembered the Holy Innocents on Dec. 28, when all the men and boys named Inocente were honored. I often wondered how so many not-so innocent types could have that name. And how could Herod have killed so many babies? There was New Year’s Day, sacred to God the Father, who seldom gets any credit, but because of him sacred to all who bear his name, Manuel. After that there was Epiphany, on January 6, holy to all those named Epifanio. On Epiphany the Magi come bearing rich gifts. It is the Day of the Three Kings, el Dia de los Reyes Magos, the day of the Wise Men. This is also the name-day of all those named “Reyes.” In the old way of looking at things your name-day is much more significant than your birthday. The saint or sacred feast whose name you bear is your protector, a type of totem beloved in the Indo-Hispano culture.

If there was a true joyous day for all, this was it. Jan. 6 definitely eclipsed Christmas for gift-giving. Baltazar, Melchor, and Gaspar had brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child. We emulated them and brought our own gifts. We gave gifts to friends and family.  But in a holy time it’s the King you must honor and how can you give the King any gifts? He already has everything, owns everything. He doesn’t need your poor gift. The Irish nuns at the parish school told us so. They said that on his birthday it is the King who gives gifts. During this season we should ask the King for a favor. There is always life, but also death, and the Irish, like the Mexicans, are ever aware of death. The grace we should request, the sisters said, was for the dead–the release of dear loved ones from Purgatory. Release of captives, that was the true spirit of Christmas and Epiphany. More purified sinners are released from Purgatory at Christmas than on All Soul’s Day.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D, is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.