Peace on Earth.
Christmas is a glorious time of year, when we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace. On the night he was born into our world, a host of angels sang, “peace on earth, good will towards men”.
He arrived as a child, and he arrived in peace.
But in spite of this peace, made freely available to all, mankind continues to wage war across the globe.
“The Great War”, fought over 100 years ago, was considered “the war to end all wars”. Of the 65 million that fought in this conflict, half never made it home. At the time, it was thought that after experiencing the devastation and death brought about by modern warfare, humanity would take every measure to prevent it from ever happening again.
Sadly, it was mere decades before the seeds of another “Great War” were sown. Not only had we failed to stop world wars, we were now numbering them.
But in the midst of the bloodshed, there is one bright moment that shines out through the darkness of World War I.
The Christmas Truce of 1914.
It was a moment when enemy combatants truly embraced peace on earth, and shared good will towards those they were supposed to hate.
It was a moment when the men in those cold, muddy trenches soon realized they had more in common than they had differences.
On Christmas Eve of 1914, in the trenches on the Western front, German troops were seen lighting candles, setting up spruce trees, and were heard singing Christmas carols. The English troops, in trenches just a few yards away, started singing carols in response.
Before long, the men were encouraged.
They trepidatiously emerged from their trenches, met in the middle, and were now celebrating an unofficial peace.
Letters from soldiers recall that both sides agreed not to shoot the following day (Christmas Day).
Their letters describe this unique Christmas:
“This will be the most memorable Christmas I’ve ever spent or likely to spend: since about tea time yesterday I don’t think there’s been a shot fired on either side up to now. Last night turned a very clear frost moonlight night, so soon after dusk we had some decent fires going and had a few carols and songs. The Germans commenced by placing lights all along the edge of their trenches and coming over to us—wishing us a Happy Christmas etc. They also gave us a few songs etc. so we had quite a social party.”
Bruce Bairnsfather, who served throughout the war, wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything… I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. … The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”
It is even reported that these enemies worked to gather the bodies of those who had been killed on the front lines, helped to bury them together, and held joint funeral services.
Image Courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine
Being Christmas, some of the officers were sympathetic to this camaraderie. However, others were not as pleased, and as the battles grew more bitter and violent, commanding officers began to order heavy artillery strikes on subsequent Christmas Eves. Yet this beautiful and unexpected display lives on in the stories passed down from those who were there.
According to these firsthand accounts, there was a vibrant soccer match played between the two sides that day. The Germans won the friendly match 3-2; the game ending when the ball went flat after being kicked into a barbed wire barricade. There’s a sad symbolism in that.
Yet this Christmas Truce was a glimpse of what could be, in the midst of what should never be.
It was a brief moment when peace defeated war.
It was a celebration of life, in a world plagued by death.
It was hope in the midst of hopelessness, and light in the midst of darkness.
It was peace on earth, good will towards men.
It was a reminder of the great Prince of all Peace, whose humble birth forever defeated darkness. We must only believe and embrace it.
It was truly Christmas.
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