Christmas is a time of magic. It’s a time where Christmas movie after Christmas movie has told us that anything can happen. From becoming Santa Claus, to finding “the one” mysteriously wrapped in a gift under our tree (creepy, but cute), to rediscovering joy and magic in our lives, to learning how my big nose can save Christmas, and even learning how one baby boy had the power to change the world forever, we are drawn into the mystery and magic of Christmas.
Yet, in the midst of the retelling of those popular tales about overgrown elves, an old guy with a cookie habit who watches you while you sleep, and the “true meaning of Christmas” (which probably involves an Iphone, XBOX, or some other way to buy affection), one story has sadly been overlooked. It is a story true to the heart of Christmas.
In the winter of 1914 the world was entrenched in a vicious world war. It would be called “the war to end all wars” and over the course of five years would take the lives of over 17 million people, both civilians and soldiers. World War I was bloody, brutal and showed what human ambition and ingenuity had a dark side to it. Yet, in the midst of chaos and carnage there was a beaming light which shone brighter than at any other time in history of warfare. This isolated moment in 1914 is what we refer to as the Christmas Truce. And it was at this time that all along the western front men from both sides put down their guns, embraced their humanity, and at some cake.
Trenchworks covered over 6,000 miles of territory along the western front. Life in the trenches was chaotic, filthy, lice-infested, and ultimately short. There was little to look forward to and much to dread. The men who understood your lot in the life best – outside of the men around you – were the men in the trench across “no man’s land” from you. And they were trying to kill you. Sleep was sporadic, rest was nowhere in sight, and relief was but a dream. Soldiers on both sides had been trained that the man standing across from him was not just a member of an opposing force, but a beast; a monster who longed to not only take your freedom, but your very soul.
Yet, in the midst of death and destruction, humanity struggled to break forth with the type of magic and resurgence that only Christmas can bring. It started slow as most movements do. And it started as many of our Christmases do; it started with a song.
The specific details differ along the front, but the story remains constant. As each side was settling down on Christmas Eve to enjoy a few pleasures from home – some chocolate, a tasty cake, and even some champagne – a voice was heard beckoning from across the open air of the battlefield. Though the language was different, the voice sang of home; it painted a picture devoid of death, destruction, and filth, and overflowing with hope, love, and joy.
These voices heard all along the western front drew out the humanity that had been buried in the recesses of the soldiers’ survival mechanisms. And instead of shooting at the voice for being slightly off-key, the men would then join with their opponent in song. Echoes of “Stille Nacht” and “Auld Lang Syne” filled the air, where explosions and the sounds of rifle-fire had previously held both sides’ undivided attention. Having joined together in song, the men decide to venture out and get to know each other, thus leading to a temporary and unauthorized truce. In some places along the front, this truce lasts for a few days – spanning Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Boxing Day. While in some areas the men ceased fire for weeks and even months.
The days of the truce are filled with fraternizing (a court-martialing offence), singing, exchange of gifts (from belt buckles and cigarettes to fine German chocolate), burying of the dead, and of course a traditional game or two of football – not the American kind. They even got to enjoy the grandeur and homeliness of a Christmas tree. The Germans, obsessed with Christmas as they were, stopped sending food and ammunition to their troops long enough to ship enough Christmas trees to place one every few meters in the trenches. I mean, who needs bratwurst and sauerkraut when you’re filled with the holiday spirit, right?
Men would write home to their families describing what one could have only imagined unthinkable before. Not only had they met their enemy, but they sang with them in “no man’s land” and they kind of liked it. Friendships would be forged in this serendipitous event that would last a lifetime, the effects of interaction that should not have happened.
Through this brief moment in time men from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom were able to experience the true unifying and transcending power of Christmas. It illuminated how there was far more to connect than separate them, and that we should all lighten up and sing some Christmas carols around the tree every now and again. In what seemed to be the ultimate pit of despair, life triumphed – if only but for a moment.
So this Christmas, be willing to bridge the gap. Get out the harmonica and fruitcake and spread some holiday cheer. Hey, if they don’t shoot at you for bringing over the fruitcake, you might just have a friend for life. It worked a century ago. Why not now?