Over the years, there have been some truly memorable Christmases. On Christmas Day 1223, St Francis of Asisi built the first nativity scene. On Christmas Day 1818, the Christmas carol “Silent Night” was performed for the first time in the church of St Nicholas in Obendorf, Austria. On Christmas Day 1974, Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin, Australia. But one Christmas Day will go down in history as demonstrating the true spirit of that holy day more than any other. It was December 25, 1914, the day of the Christmas truce.
Three months beforehand, millions of soldiers and volunteers had rushed enthusiastically to fight in what would be called the Great War, the war to end all wars. But it was not long before the jovial façade was torn away. Armies equipped with machine guns and artillery killed thousands upon thousands of men.
To protect against the threat of this vast firepower, the soldiers were ordered to dig in and to prepare for next year’s offensives. The early trenches were often hasty creations and poorly constructed. In bad weather, the positions could flood and fall in. The soldiers found themselves wallowing in a freezing mire of mud. The man at the Front could not help but have a degree of sympathy for his opponents who were having just as miserable a time as they were. It was a combination of these factors that made the Christmas Truce of 1914 possible. On the eve of the Truce, the British Army was manning a stretch of the front in south west Belgium. Along the front the enemy was sometimes no more than 100 or even 30 metres away. Both Tommy and Fritz could hurl greetings and insults to one another, and form temporary truces to collect and bury their dead.
As Christmas approached, parcels packed with goodies from home started to arrive. On top of this came gifts care of the state. Tommy received plum puddings, chocolates, cigarettes and a picture of King George greeting to the troops. Not to be outdone, Fritz received a present from the Kaiser, a large pipe for the troops and a box of cigars for the officers. With their morale boosted by messages of thanks and their bellies fuller than normal, the season of goodwill entered the trenches.
A British Daily Telegraph correspondent wrote that on one part of the line the Germans had managed to slip a chocolate cake into British trenches. Much better than the usual grenade. Even more amazingly, the cake was accompanied with a message asking for a ceasefire later that evening so they could celebrate the festive season and their Captain’s birthday. They proposed to hold a concert at 7.30pm when candles would be placed on the parapets of their trenches.
The British accepted the invitation and offered some tobacco as a return present. That evening, at the stated time, German heads suddenly popped up and started to sing. Each number ended with a round of applause from both sides. The Germans sang their favourite carol by one of their own. Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, better known to us as Silent Night. The British responded with traditional English carols. Maybe God rest ye merry gentlemen. The Germans then asked the British to join in with them. At this point, one Tommy shouted: ‘We’d rather die than sing German.’ To which Fritz replied, ‘It would kill us if you did’.
When dawn rose on Christmas Day the fraternisation began. No-man’s land, the area between the trenches, became a kind of playground. Men who had been shooting at each other the day before, exchanged gifts and buttons. In one or two places soldiers who had been barbers in civilian times gave free haircuts. One German, a performer, put on a juggling act in the centre of no-man’s land. On many parts of the line the Christmas Day truce was initiated through sadder means. Both sides saw the lull in hostilities as a chance to get into no-man’s land and seek out the bodies of their fallen comrades and give them a decent burial.
With the Truce in full swing up and down the line, there were a number of recorded games of soccer, although these were often just ‘kick-abouts’ rather than a structured match. On January 1, 1915, the London Times published a letter from a major in the Medical Corps reporting that in his sector the British played a game against the Germans and were beaten 3-2. One German soldier recorded in his diary: ‘The English brought a soccer ball from the trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvellously wonderful, yet how strange it was. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.’ Nevertheless, the British commanders vowed that no such truce should happen again.
The story of the Christmas truce reminds us how much easier it is for one man to kill another if he is convinced the enemy is a lower form of life. A target to be taken down. A pest to be eradicated. Some kind of alien creature. And so it is in all our conflicts at home or at school or at work. When we are surrounded by people whom we treat like they are burdens to us or obstacles or threats or parasites or foreigners or aliens, it is easy to ignore their needs and to demand our own instead. But how much harder it is to kill, to fight, to maintain the conflict when we restore to them their humanity, when we feel compassion for what someone else is going through. For peace comes when we remember what we have in common with someone else.
This was the angels’ message to the shepherds.
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born for you who is Christ the Lord.” And suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men.”
This is good news. But not just for me. And not just for you. But for all the people. Because it announced the birth of the baby who would grow up to be the man who would reach out with compassion for the stranger, who would touch the leper, who would eat and drink with sinners, who would forgive his enemies. Jesus Christ. The Saviour of the world. The king of all kings and the lord of all lords. In Christ we find our true humanity, the person we should be, the person we can be in the power of his Spirit. In Christ we are adopted into the family of God. We receive the privilege of becoming the sons and daughters of God. In Christ we discover not just what we need, but what everyone needs. And no one can be enemies, when they see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
This is what Tommy and Fritz experienced on Christmas Day 1914. In the silence between the gunshots they heard the singing of Christmas carols that reminded them of the one thing they have in common: Jesus Christ born for them. In him they rediscovered their humanity. And as brothers they put down their guns and played football.
No truce will last forever. And no war will end all wars. But at Christmas we celebrate the birth of the man who came to bring glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men. Peace begins with Christ because in him we rediscover our true humanity, who we should be, who we can be, and who we will be in glory. Peace begins with Christ because in him we discover the humanity of those around us, to have compassion on the poor and to forgive our enemies. As we celebrate the first time he came, may we pray that Christ will come again to rule in our hearts, the Prince of Peace who alone can end all wars.