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The History of Christmas: Day 12 – The Christmas Truce (1914 CE) December 20, 2012

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The History of Christmas
Day 12: The Christmas Truce – 1914 CE

 

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This Christmas saw many American families torn apart because of the war in Iraq. Sons and daughters left parents alone at home. Husbands and wives, separated by the call to active duty, fought the tears of loneliness during what should have been a happy time. And then there are the combatants, both worshiping pretty much the same God, both attacking each other with a vengeance in order to kill and maim.

Going back to the American Revolution, how many wars have been fought that pitted Christian against Christian? The French Revolution followed quickly on the heels of our own. Then came the war of 1812 and the Napoleonic wars, followed by our Civil war, then the Spanish-American war, World War I and World War II.

Amazing when you think about it. Pick your side and listen to the prayers.  One wonders what God thought. Yet out of these conflagrations rose one unique miracle, something that never happened before or after on the same scale.

It started near Ypres, Belgium, and spread up and down across the no-man’s-lands of a Europe torn apart by World War I. Neither the Germans nor the British were thinking about whether Jesus was the reason for the season. Nor were they concerning themselves with the secularization of Christmas. They were too busy fighting a grimy trench war. Then, on the night of December 26th, the true spirit of Christmas touched the men of both armies. What occurred over the next ten days proved that Christmas could even stop a war.

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France, 1914
Dear Mum,

Somewhere between Houplines and Frelinghien events occurred over the past two days that underscored my faith in the love of man for his fellows. I’ve written you often how I’ve felt that war removes the humanity from human beings. The sight of a companion, dead in a pool of his own blood is a lasting reminder of what this war is truly about. The anger it imbues for a nameless, faceless enemy is easy to understand. So we hurl our shells back at their trenches, hoping to kill as many of them as possible. And on their side, friends died as well. And their anger at us grows daily. This cycle continues on and on as the dead pile up on both sides.

A cold front must have moved in on the 24th. Temperatures dropped quickly. Thankfully, the mud in the trenches froze, making it easier to get around. By nightfall, most of us were shivering with the cold. One of my mates pointed out something unusual happening out across no mans land. There were twinkling lights. The Germans had set Christmas trees and strung lights on their parapets. How odd, I thought.

About an hour later, voices rose up on the German side in song. They sang their version of Silent Night. When they were finished, our boys answered with a carol of our own. This continued well into the night. I listened and joined in when I knew the song. I’ve not that good a voice, Mum, as you know. Many of the carols were about the birth of Jesus. I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought of all this bloodshed between believers. He couldn’t be happy with it.

The next morning, from across no-man’s-land, came a call of, “Don’t Shoot. Don’t Shoot.” Through the fog I saw a German standing halfway between the trenches holding up a Christmas tree. One of our lads jumped out of the trench and walked up to him. The German said, “Here Tommy. For you. Merry Christmas.” Our lad shook his hand and said, “Merry Christmas, Fritz.”

Soon no man’s land was filled with soldiers from both sides, shaking hands, exchanging cigarettes, chocolates and other small gifts. Some of the lads threw down their hats, marked off a pitch and played a game of football. Amazing, Mum. It was all very difficult to believe. I shared a beer with a few of their boys. I couldn’t speak German and most of them couldn’t speak English, but we managed to make our feelings known. You could feel an undercurrent of distrust, even fear to a degree, but this was buried underneath the fascination of simple acts of kindness on both sides.

Today I sit in our trench. The guns are still silent and there are catcalls going on back and forth. Some saying, thank you or happy New Year. But we all know that soon the killing must begin again. I wonder what would happen if we all just threw down our guns and said, “No.” I suppose that’s unreasonable, but the thought did cross my mind. What is there about this time of year that can stop a war and bring even the most hated of enemies together in peace and friendship?

I need to go, Mum. I hope your Christmas was as remarkable as mine. Happy New Year and best to Dad and Kitten.

Love, Frank

*

When upper echelon officers on both sides heard about this they were stunned. Orders to cease the fraternization were sent out immediately. But even this did not stop the spirit of Christmas from enacting its power. Some lower level officers were arrested for not putting a stop to the celebrating. In many areas, however, the truce lasted until New Year’s Day.

The Generals swore that such a truce would never happen again. It hasn’t. Man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man is more important than human kindness. But the truce proved that when people get in touch with the true meaning of Christmas, the meaning that started over four thousand years ago and has been passed down every year thereafter, miracles of vast proportion can and do happen.

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