Peace on Christmas

The ‘war on Christmas’ is a venerable tradition in America. Many blame the incipient atheism and secularism of American society starting with the 20th century, but in fact, 17th century Puritans – whom you can accuse of many things but definitely not of religious pluralism and secularist tendencies! – were all too keen to ban celebrations of Christmas in the New World.1 And to this day, the ‘war on Christmas’ remains one of those political signal flags, waved with more pride than wisdom, more enthusiasm than meaning.

But I don’t want to talk about the war on Christmas. I want to talk about the peace on Christmas.

Christmas miracles

Like most people who, by addiction or duty, are near constantly connected to the internet, I couldn’t possibly miss astrophysicist popular science narrator Neil deGrasse Tyson’s obligatory tweet to enlighten the masses about the sheer folly and insignificance of Christmas.

Now, if Mr Tyson does not want to find a religious miracle in what transpired two millennia ago somewhere near Bethlehem, that’s his right, and a right I volunteered to bleed and die for. But maybe he’ll have time for a secular miracle.

December, 1914

By Christmas 1914, the Great War has been raging on for less than half a year, but quite definitely longer than what was promised – a quick pacification of the Balkans and resolution of the Austro-Hungarian crisis before the leaves fell. After the initial frantic changes of control that form the first spasms of every armed conflict, the lines of combat solidified, and warfighting went from killing time to, well, just killing time. Nowhere was this more true than the blood-sodden fields of Ypres, where the First Battle of Flanders between late October and late November ended in the kind of frustrating, indecisive result that we now know is psychologically more distressing than combat itself.2 The troops on the Western Front were tired, bored and immensely fed up with a war during which nothing happened.

Until something happened that no-one would have thought. Something we might with no exaggeration call a miracle.

After five months of war and the attendant emotions – rage, grief, loss, nationalistic fervour and divine self-justification -, the diary for the 16th Queen’s Westminster Infantry Regiment for 25 December 1914 noted only curtly: “no war today”.3 A Rifleman Graham Williams of the 5th London Rifle Brigade, cited by Neil Hollander,4 described the situation thus:

Then suddenly lights began to appear along the German parapet, which were evidently make-shift Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles, which burnt steadily in the frosty air!
First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up O Come, All Ye Faithful, the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is a most extraordinary thing — two nations singing the same carol in the middle of a war.
I think I have seen one of the most extraordinary sights today that anyone has ever seen. […]

In his letter to his mother, the naturalist and author Henry Williamson, then also with the London Rifle Brigade, wrote an extensive narrative of the Christmas Truce, too long to repeat here but worth excerpting a few parts:

On Xmas eve both armies sang carols and cheered & there was very little firing. The Germans (in some places 80 yds away) called to our men to come and fetch a cigar & our men told them to come to us. This went on for some time, neither fully trusting the other, until, after much promising to ‘play the game’ a bold Tommy crept out & stood between the trenches, & immediately a Saxon came to meet him. They shook hands & laughed & then 16 Germans came out.

Thus the ice was broken. Our men are speaking to them now.

They are landsturmers or landwehr,5 I think, & Saxons & Bavarians (no Prussians).6 Many are gentle looking men in goatee beards & spectacles, and some are very big and arrogant looking. I have some cigarettes which I shall keep, & a cigar I have smoked.

We had a burial service in the afternoon, over the dead Germans who perished in the ‘last attack that was repulsed’ against us. The Germans put ‘For Fatherland & Freedom’ on the cross.

Other accounts recount spontaneous games of football (remarkably, between the 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers and the Saxon Infantry Corps)7, exchanges of gifts, joint services and a fervent yet futile attempt by senior leadership on both sides to prevent the truce. But miracles don’t obey orders.

Of course, eventually, war resumed, and after the increasingly inhumane and embittered warfare of 1915, involving in particular widespread use of lethal war gases like chlorine – in an act of sad irony, deployed near Ypres, where one of the first Christmas truces took place – and wide scale deployment of non-lethal lachrymants like xylyl bromide (T-Stoff), whatever residual sympathies could have led to a similar truce have been extinguished. For the rest of the war, Christmas Eve was celebrated by artillery barrages from both sides, so as to preclude any foolhardy attempts by the men in the trenches to find that unity between humankind that war cruelly severed, severs and will sever as long as we have them.

But once, just one brief Christmas Day, “at some disputed barricade”, there was a brief moment in which men who grew up, or at the very least were inculcated, with the superiority of their own nation and the justice of their cause, could set all that aside and realize that what they shared was much more than what divided them.

And that, to me, is as close to a Christmas miracle as it gets.

For reasons complex and convoluted, we don’t know to how many of the men reaching hands across the barbed wire and the barricades were devout Christians, or what the nativity of Christ meant to them, whether they ever celebrated Christmas, or whether they lit the last candle of the Menorah mere three weeks earlier. We do know that those who were Christians came from a range of different branches, some with radically different interpretations of Christmas. We don’t know to how many of them worshipped the nativity of Christ and how many were largely inspired by the secular aspects of Victorian Christmas: carols, Christmas trees and presents.

But what we do know is that on that 25th December 1914, something happened that no-one would have predicted, that someone at one point risked their lives to reach out their hand to their sworn enemy for a single day’s relief from the stalemate, that for one day amidst a senseless bloodshed, Love, Mercy and a notion of a shared humanity prevailed over principalities, powers, rulers of darkness of that world and spiritual and moral wickedness in high places that sought to separate brother from brother.

And if that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is. You don’t have to believe in any supernatural power to accept it. It’s enough to consider all it takes to overcome the hatred and the chauvinism and the supremacist ideologies and the blind, unquestioning loyalty and the all-ever-blinding propaganda to conclude that whatever happened on that day 103 years ago, it was something very special.

And that’s why it will forever be taboo to speak of the unifying power of this day, between believers and unbelievers, between those who worship Christ and those who worship any other deity or none, between those who were made brothers and sisters equally endowed with a shared humanity but separated by arbitrary divisions.

And that’s why, as long as we wish to heal this broken world, we must think and speak more of the peace on Christmas than whatever war on Christmas, real or imagined.

Personal note: Joyeux Noël, despite the odd historical inaccuracies and somewhat contrived plot, is a beautiful dramatization of this incredible event, and definitely worth watching over Christmastide. Merry Christmas!

References   [ + ]

1.L.C. Scott writes in Christmas – Philosophy for everyone: better than a lump of coal (Wiley, 2002): “Ironically, the earliest Christian settlers on both the [American] mainland and the islands of Hawaii forbade the celebration of Christmas as extra-biblical. […] On the mainland, seventeenth-century Puritan New England had laws forbidding the observance of Christmas. […] Those who still celebrated Christmas, such as Lutherans, Catholics, Dutch Reformed and Anglicans, did so in a ow-key manner, focusing on church or home. Well into the 1800s the celebration of Christmas was a local matter. The first state to make Christmas a legal holiday was Alabama in 1836.”
2.For an argument expounding on this, see the works of Jonathan Shay, who among the moral decay of the war also emphasised the deleterious consequence of ‘killing time, punctuated by killing time’, and the relation of the abrupt changes from one to another to the development of hyperarousal as a pathognomonic symptom of combat trauma.
3.Cited in Blom Crocker, T. (2015). The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory and the First World War. University of Kentucky Press.
4.Hollander, N. (2013). Elusive Dove: The search for peace during World War I. McFarland.
5.Roughly equivalent to a militia in this context, Landsturm and Landwehr were last-ditch forces conscripted of everyone of military age, hastily trained, badly armed and, effectively, cannon fodder.
6.The importance of this may be that Prussians practiced a much harsher military discipline than central and southern forces.
7.A good summary of the event is in DeGroot, G. (2014). The truth about the Christmas Day football match. The Telegraph, 24 Dec 2014.

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