It is, perhaps, one of the most powerful images of war in history. I am speaking of the “Christmas Truce” of December 25, 1914. On this day, soldiers of opposing armies experienced the peace of Christmas. Perhaps the most detailed account of the event is Henry Weintraub’s Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce (2001). Although many have argued that the event was fairly insignificant, it demonstrates the power of Christmas to inspire “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”
Several soldiers mentioned the Christmas truce in memoirs, speeches, and articles written after the war, some as late as World War II. According to witnesses, the events began when the British saw lighted Christmas trees all along the German trenches on Christmas Eve. Some yelled in English or held up signs they would cease firing, and the guns suddenly went quiet as each side took a break to celebrate Christmas. The next day, both sides went out into “No Man’s Land” – the region between trenches filled with barbed wire and craters – to recover their dead. As they neared the middle, they began to speak to each other and were soon exchanging pictures, newspapers, chocolate, and cigarettes. In some places, they sang Christmas carols or recited Psalm 23. In other locations, they played a friendly game of soccer. At least for the moment, the war was suspended as each wished goodwill toward the others, and they were not inclined to return to the fighting. In fact, some have suggested that the war would have ended there were it not for the officers urging the two sides to resume fighting the next day. Later, both sides published strict orders against fraternization that prevented such a truce from happening again.
Almost from the beginning, historians, authors, and national leaders sought to downplay the truce. The first official history of World War I in Britain published in the 1920s referred to the event only in passing as something that had happened in a small number of locations, which is the assessment of most historians. Adolph Hitler, who was actually present, did not mention it at all in Mein Kamph, but this is no surprise since the idea of Christ inspiring peace did not fit into his worldview of the struggle of races. It is more surprising that it finds no place in Erich Marie Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or the poetry of Wilfred Owen. Of course, both of these writers entered the war after the truce occurred, but given their pacifism and antiwar literature, they might have at least referenced it. Perhaps one reason they didn’t was that the truce did not fit with their objectives either. They wished to show the barbarism of war, and having people cease firing to celebrate Christmas simply was unimportant for this goal. For the lost generation, a major objective was to question all authority and institutions, including both national leaders bent on war and a church that supported it.
Nevertheless, the fact that it happened at all speaks to the ability of Christmas to generate peace and goodwill among all peoples. For the believer, of course, it is a celebration of the birth of Christ and leads us to seek peace within ourselves as well as with others. One of my favorite Christmas songs is “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” Even for secular man, however, the season leads many to suspend their hostilities for a moment. Especially on Christmas Eve, which has always inspired me to take a moment to remember the reason for the season, it is a time of peace. In all three of my deployments, Christmas was a magical time. Duty was light, and we attended Christmas services, dinners, and parties. It was a time to stop the fighting and remember faith and family, even though far away. In two of those Christmases, the Muslim holiday of Ramadan fell during the same season so that it seemed the whole nation was at peace. As I wrote last year, the memories of those Christmases are perhaps the most poignant because of the starkness of peace in the midst of war.
As we enter another Christmas season, let’s celebrate our own Christmas truce. Let’s suspend our fighting with neighbors and family for a moment, whether over politics, or the pandemic, or more personal reasons. It can be a Silent Night once again. But more than that, let us experience the peace of Christmas every day. Weintraub ended his book by quoting “Carol from Flanders” by World War I poet Frederick Nevil about the Christmas truce, whose words summarize the feeling of those who celebrated the original Christmas truce:
Oh ye who read this truthful rime
From Flanders, kneel and say:
God speed the time when every day
Shall be as Christmas Day.
© 2021 J.D. Manders