Parliament Hill bells to mark 1914 Xmas truce


OTTAWA – Around the biggest of the 53 carillon bells hanging in the Peace Tower reads the inscription, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace and goodwill towards men” — words taken from Luke’s Christmas passage in the Bible.

When the tower and its carillon were unveiled in 1927, they were a tribute to peace after the traumatic First War War.

It’s perhaps fitting then that on Christmas Eve this year, the carillon will be among 99 instruments in 11 countries to commemorate the 1914 Christmas Truce.

The truce was a spontaneous laying down of arms in various places along the western front by German, Belgian and British soldiers that first year of the war. (Canadians had not yet joined them in combat).

Accounts of that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day talk of meals shared, carols sung, games of soccer, and even a collective effort to bury the war dead.

Dominion Carillonneur Andrea McCrady is set to play “Silent Night” at about 12:15 on Dec. 24, as part of the agreement with the World Carillon Federation. The University of Toronto’s Soldiers’ Tower carillon is also ready to participate.

“In his dedicatory speech, Mackenzie King waxed quite eloquent, saying this was the song of the angels, heard 2,000 years ago in Judea, and now the carillon becomes the voice of the nation in remembrance and thanksgiving,” McCrady said in an interview.

“He made a direct connection of that inscription to the first Christmas and the song of the angels. Even though Canadians are not part of the actual Christmas truce, the carillon, the Peace Tower, they all share the same aspiration towards peace.

“The spirit is there.”

The carillon itself originated in Flanders around 600 years ago. The massive instrument features pedals, rows of wooden levers called batons, and pulleys that attach to the bells above. The carillonneur plays by pressing on the pedals with her feet and simultaneously hitting the batons with the side of her loosely closed fist.

McCrady, a retired doctor from the United States, won a competition for the job in 2008. She replaced Gordon Slater, who had occupied the post for 31 years.

McCrady is creative with her recital playlists. This winter, passersby could hear Coldplay’s “Clocks” playing if they came up to Parliament Hill midday. During the annual Parliament Hill Christmas lighting ceremony this year, she prepared a number of songs that would have been heard by Canadians during the First World War.

She also played Paul McCartney’s song “Pipes of Peace”, which was written as a tribute to the 1914 truce.

One of McCrady’s favourite times for playing is in the lead-up to the holidays.

“It’s a joy to play every day, but it connects a lot with people on the ground (during this period),” she said.

“It’s lots of fun to play the prelude to the Christmas lighting ceremony. People are up there with their hot chocolate and their beaver tails and they’re hearing the bells play the Christmas carols. That’s one of the neatest times of the year.”