This Christmas season, a century-old historical blip seems to have captured our imaginations – helped along by a three-minute film released by British grocery chain Sainsbury’s. I am talking about the Christmas truce of World War I, when Allied and German troops called their own unofficial ceasefires all along the Western Front.
The small, decidedly unsanctioned truces took place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1914 – the first Christmas of the war. Men from both sides crawled out of their trenches to swap food and trinkets, conduct burial services and prisoner exchanges, and sing carols. Some even started games of soccer, commemorated in a memorial that Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, dedicated earlier this month and in a series of reenactments this year in Belgium and Britain.
Of course, over the decades the lines between fact and myth have been blurred, but both official reports and letters and diaries from soldiers in the ranks make clear that spontaneous outbursts of goodwill broke out all along the 27-mile trench line.
This year marks the centennial of that event. With any historic anniversary comes a wave of storytelling and ceremony, but this seems to speak with particular poignancy to the tragedies we face today. 2014 has been the year when we couldn’t catch our breath, the year when every new week – sometimes every new day – brought fresh horror in the headlines.
It’s been a dark year. A year when it feels like nothing is getting better, like we have exhausted the human capacity for charity, mercy, and goodwill.
But it must have also felt that way in December 1914, when Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary for Great Britain, is said to have remarked to a friend, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”
December is traditionally a time for hope. Christians mark Advent, a season of prayerful waiting for the renewed promise of a Savior. In the Jewish faith, it’s a season of miracles and a celebration of God-given freedom. Those of a more secular bent still acknowledge this time of year as a period of peace, joy, and generosity.
And for all of us, we have the shining hours a century ago when men laid down machine guns and took up the sweet verses of “Silent Night” – or “Stille Nacht.”
In this painful year, the Christmas truce of 1914 reminds us that Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” are real. It reminds us that we don’t have to relinquish our humanity. It reminds us that there have been many times in our past when our world seemed ripped apart and the pain of it seemed past bearing.
Those times always eventually gave way to peace and hope. So it was in 1914, when men who’d been shooting at each other hours ago crawled out into No Mans’ Land to trade smokes and play games. It is my hope that the courage and faith they showed will hearten us all as we head into a new year.