In the Christmas story, angels announced the birth of the Messiah to shepherds in a field and spoke of peace on earth. Some two thousand years later peace is elusive at Christmas as well as the rest of the year. Our country’s news is full of shootings and acrid political divisiveness. How could there possibly be peace even for a brief moment under these circumstances? Well, miracles do occur at Christmas, and fleeting peace once occurred in the midst of a world war–the Christmas Truce of 1914.
Unless you’re a history buff, you’ve probably never heard of this historical and heartwarming event. I hadn’t either until I happened upon the movie “Joyeux Noel” one year, a film which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006. I took French in high school and can tell you “Joyeux Noel” means “Merry Christmas.” And why was the movie’s title in French? Well, bien sur, it was a French film. Mercifully, there were subtitles, so I didn’t have to bemoan how much French I’ve forgotten or how much French I never learned.
“Joyeux Noel” is a fictionalized account of an actual event, the Christmas Truce of 1914. The film presents the historical occurrence as seen through the eyes of German, French, and Scottish soldiers. It was a December to remember, but not because there was any type of a luxury car sales event. The holiday was memorable because it established that even a world war couldn’t destroy the Christmas spirit.
It was only a few months into World War I–a war many expected to be over quickly, specifically by Christmas. But bitter fighting raged and Christmas came to the soldiers whether they were ready or not for it. Pope Benedict XV urged a temporary cessation of the hostilities for the celebration of Christmas; however, the warring countries refused to agree to an official ceasefire. Also opposing an official truce was Adolf Hitler, then a young corporal in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry. (Yet another reason to detest Adolf.)
To boost morale at this magical time of the year, Wilhelm, the German Crown Prince, sent the lead singer from the Berlin Imperial Opera Company to the front lines. Tenor Walter Kirchhoff sang to the 120th and 124th Wurttenberg regiments. At the end of his performance, French soldiers in the trenches stood up and applauded. Apparently music is a universal language appreciated by all, no matter what country’s uniform one wears.
In addition to a musical performance, German troops received Christmas trees and boxes of cigars inscribed Weinachten Im Feld 1914. Whew! Boy were the German troops happy. They wouldn’t want to be caught dead (literally or figuratively) without Christmas trees for their trenches.And who cares if their cigars were stinky? Their opponents clearly knew where the Germans were located. Ah, yes–in the beautifully decorated trenches across the way.
But better than opera singers and superfluous gifts for a war zone was what the soldiers gave themselves for Christmas–a truce. The Christmas Truce of 1914 was a series of widespread unofficial ceasefires along the Western Front. This front stretched some 500-miles and involved a million or so troops. The truce was initiated by the soldiers on their own and not by their commanders.
Historical reports indicate that the first truce began on Christmas Eve in the region of Ypres, Belgium, and that the Germans initiated it. German troops hadn’t decked the halls with boughs of holly, but they had decorated the area around their trenches. Candles had been placed on the trenches and on their Christmas trees so thoughtfully sent to them by the powers that be back home. After their decorating was concluded, the German troops began singing Christmas carols. Their foes may not have understood the German words, but they recognized the music and responded by singing their own carols in English. Christmas greetings were then shouted between the officially warring sides.
But wait! There’s more. The soldiers refrained from shooting, and men from both sides eventually ventured out into no man’s land. There small gifts were exchanged and friendly conversations occurred. Germans gave beer to the British who gave tobacco and tinned meat in return. Souvenirs such as buttons and hats were also traded. Some soldiers even played soccer together. According to some reports, the Germans won the soccer match 3-2. In a more solemn fashion, joint burial ceremonies were held and prisoners were swapped. As German Lt. Kurt Zehmsic commented, “Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for awhile.”
The spirit of this Christmas truce was the subject of a popular holiday song, “Snoopy’s Christmas,” which references the World War I truce. The song tells how Snoopy had to go out on Christmas Eve and fight the Bed Baron. After a long dogfight, the Red Baron forces Snoopy to land and offers him a holiday toast. Afterwards, each took off to the skies “each knowing they’d meet on some other day.”
Sadly, with the end of Christmas it was back to business as usual in World War I, i.e., killing each other. The war continued on for a few more years, but future attempts at holiday ceasefires were squelched by officers threatening disciplinary action. The outbreaks of spontaneous humanity and good will to fellow man were not repeated in future wartime Christmases.
A familiar quote is that history is doomed to repeat itself. If that’s the case, then I am all for the history of the Christmas Truce of 1914 repeating itself. OK, I’m not suggesting that we need to have a world war so that we can take a break from it; nevertheless, I am hoping that, despite the deep divisions here in the U.S., we can lay aside our political differences for a brief time and celebrate the day where peace on earth was announced. I’ll bet Snoopy and the Red Baron would be in as I am. How about you?
Despite vastly differing political views, aren’t we all at the end of the day fellow humans? If we truly believe in what Christmas stands for, shouldn’t we be willing to lay aside our differences to embrace the ideal of peace on earth? Can’t we, as my mother would say, disagree without being disagreeable?