As we hurtle head-long into the vortex of congregation, celebration, and consumption that our culture’s Christmas ritual has become, the following question nags at too many of us, from the backs of our minds:
How can I find a little Christmas peace and happiness, in the midst of all this turmoil?
Nearly a century ago, in a muddy, frigid Belgian valley, a company of men—a few hundred to a thousand— answered that question for themselves, under far more dire circumstances.
“You are standing up to your knees in the slime of a waterlogged trench. It is the evening of 24 December 1914, and you are on the dreaded Western Front.
“Stooped over, you wade across to the firing step and take over the watch. Having exchanged pleasantries, your bleary-eyed and mud-spattered colleague shuffles off towards his dugout. Despite the horrors and the hardships, your morale is high and you believe that in the New Year the nation’s army will march towards a glorious victory.
“But, for now, you stamp your feet in a vain attempt to keep warm. All is quiet when jovial voices call out from both friendly and enemy trenches. Then the men from both sides start singing carols and songs. Next come requests not to fire, and soon the unthinkable happens: you start to see the shadowy shapes of soldiers gathering together in no-man’s land, laughing, joking, and sharing gifts.
“Many have exchanged cigarettes, the lit ends of which burn brightly in the inky darkness. Plucking up your courage, you haul yourself up and out of the trench and walk towards the foe…”
Thus does Simon Rees introduce his featured 2009 essay on the 1914 Christmas Truce, which occurred between soldiers of the British and German armies manning a stretch of the Front’s line, running from just south of Ypres, Belgium for 27 miles to the La Bassee Canal, near Neuve-Chappelle, France.
Spontaneously, and beyond all convention, it happened. Tannenbaum, lit with small candles, appeared on the German parapets. Rifles were lowered, terms were arranged, and decaying bodies were buried. Gifts of sweets, tobacco, and keepsakes were exchanged, carols were sung, and friendly, “kick-about” football matches were played over a period that varied by location from that one day until well into the New Year. Humanity revealed itself, simply but profoundly. Again, Rees:
“A British Daily Telegraph correspondent wrote that on one part of the line the Germans had managed to slip a chocolate cake into British trenches…accompanied with a message asking for a ceasefire later that evening so they could celebrate the festive season and their Captain’s birthday. They proposed a concert at 7:30 PM, when candles, the British were told, would be placed on the parapets of their trenches. The British accepted the invitation and offered some tobacco as a return present. That evening, at the stated time, German heads suddenly popped up and started to sing. Each number ended with a round of applause from both sides. The Germans then asked the British to join in; one very mean-spirited Tommy shouted: ‘We’d rather die than sing German.’ To which a German joked aloud: ‘It would kill us if you did’.
“Men exchanged gifts and buttons. In one or two places soldiers who had been barbers in civilian times gave free haircuts. One German, a juggler and a showman, gave an impromptu and, given the circumstances, somewhat surreal performance of his routine in the centre of no-man’s land.
“Captain Sir Edward Hulse of the Scots Guards, in his famous account, remembered… ‘Scots and Huns were fraternizing in the most genuine possible manner. Every sort of souvenir was exchanged, addresses given and received, photos of families shown, etc. One of our fellows offered a German a cigarette; the German said, “Virginian?” Our fellow said, “Aye, straight-cut”, the German said “No thanks, I only smoke Turkish!”… It gave us all a good laugh.’”
Hulce and other local officers more or less turned a blind eye until their respective higher commanders enforced resumption of hostilities. Rees concludes:
“In the public’s mind the facts have become irrevocably mythologized, and perhaps this is the most important legacy of the Christmas Truce today. In our age of uncertainty, it’s comforting to believe, regardless of the real reasoning and motives, that soldiers and officers told to hate, loathe and kill, could still lower their guns and extend the hand of goodwill, peace, love and Christmas cheer.”
Fact and fancy aside, can you imagine the personal courage it took, against the possibility of harm, to cross that no-man’s-land unarmed?
What’s the lesson for our holidays—and, possibly, beyond? Take a risk; expose yourself, and reach out. Maybe:
- Extend our open hands, our willing ears, and our unbound hearts to distant, estranged, or wholly alienated parents; children; siblings; and other loved ones. Leave nothing unsaid.
- Learn from our elders and, as they have in us, delight in our progeny. Don’t just tell them we love them; tell them why.
- Engage, not just with our treasure but also with our time and talents, those outside our cohorts and comfort zones who need help. See, hear, and be with them in their distress; bring them the companion comforts of words and touch.
- Read outside our disciplines, especially in history, literature, and philosophy, to know that long before us others faced worse than what confronts us now. Somehow, they endured and emerged, if not triumphant, wiser.
- Study those least like us to learn how little of transcendent value really separates us.
- Try to understand those with whom we disagree on issues of any kind by listening to, repeating, and respecting their points of view as diligently as our own.
- Claim the rights and freedoms of citizenship, but recognize, value, and place into practice its responsibilities, as well.
It’s worth remembering that we’ve named this season for a man who—whether in life or in legend—embraced the risks of challenging convention and speaking out publicly for love, peace, and social justice, for which he paid with his life. For this, most of us continue to honor him. Today, there are people of every age and description in our streets and parks, risking their safety to question things as they are, bound by a sense that, collectively, we can be and do better.
Can’t the rest of us afford to budge, at least a little? Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with us.