Most of us are so war-weary from the photos of bomb craters, stretchers of the injured, and distraught ashen-faced children. This pre-Christmas evening I want to offer an alternative vision of hope that offers an assurance that relief from war is possible, even in the most difficult, improbable of situations. We need to believe that warfare is not inevitable, and this true story of a momentary ceasefire during WWI is a classic reminder that we can yet be surprised by the grace of peace when we least expect it. I want to keep my writing particularly brief this evening to especially encourage you to listen to the 7 minute recording I am sharing. And I also share a link if you would like to read about the event I cite in greater detail.
Many of you already know John McCutheon’s “Christmas in the Trenches” song. I have heard it a number of times, but it always brings me to tears. The true backstory is about a spontaneous truce on Christmas Eve in the midst of trench warfare in Belgium between British and German troops in 1914. The occasion was reported in the British press soon after the event, and there are numerous archives of correspondence describing the event (see below). The full story begins with the singing the carol Silent Night across the contested “No Man’s Land.” Because the carol was familiar to both sides eventually there was a mutual response and the singing became a common chorus. Eventually, one after another, men on both sides courageously began converging and eventually engaging each other in full party spirit with song, games, food and fellowship.
McCutcheon usually introduces his song with his own version of the reality of the event. He tells about performing at a music festival in Belgium when four older men kept attending his presentations. When he finally was able to speak to them personally, he learned they were actually present at the Christmas truce. The older men credited McCutcheon with affirming their reality when others often doubted their story.
The Christmas in the Trenches story, unlike the current warfare in Gaza, the Ukraine, and other places in the world today, is only about the soldiers themselves at war. The horror of most of the rest of modern warfare is how devastating it is to innocent civilians and civil life. But the microcosm of trench warfare allows us to focus on how incomprehensible war can be and how, given the opportunity, we would likely ignore its futility and horror.
If this event were simply fiction it would still have a great anti-war message; that the event actually happened makes it an iconic example of peace making which it has become throughout Europe. The repeated recollection of the event is ever a reminder that wars are fought with soldiers who hold no particular animosity toward their foe, who may not understand why they are fighting other than for patriotism and personal honor, and if given the chance, would embrace their common humanity and abolish war.
May a spirit of good will and nonviolence fill your minds and hearts this holiday season.