The Power of Christmas During Wartime
Great gestures during the Great War
*This article first appeared earlier this month in the Pohick Post, the official publication of the Pohick Episcopal Church. It is being re-published with the permission of the author.
A few years ago, a small notice in Time magazine caught my eye. It mentioned the passing of one Alfred Anderson, a Scotsman, who died in his native land at the age of 109. He had been a veteran of World War I.
Nowadays, we do not often talk about World War I. There are not many recent movies about it, and only rarely do we hear it mentioned in the media. But at one time, it was known as the Great War, and the War to End all Wars. In some ways, it was more horrible for its combatants than the World War that followed it.
That's because it was the first war to prominently feature the machine gun. With no effective means to defend against this weapon's deadly force, soldiers of both armies quickly dug into massive trenches that stretched for miles on either side.
There, the soldiers would huddle together, week after week, month after month, locked in a stalemate. They were literally trapped in the trenches as bullets hissed overhead, artillery shells exploded in random blasts, and frequent rains drenched their positions, turning them into mud-filled gullies.
As a veteran of that war, Alfred Anderson experienced all these horrors and many more. But he also experienced something else. For as the Time report noted, Mr. Anderson was the last surviving veteran of a singular event that took place ninety-six years ago this month, when he was just a young man of eighteen.
The year was 1914. Although the war had begun only five months earlier, nearly two million were already dead or wounded. In early December, Pope Benedict XV had called for a cease-fire so that Christmas could be observed. But his plea fell mostly on deaf ears.
With no truce in the offing, families back home were desperate to bring relief to their loved ones at Christmastime. On the British, French and Belgian side, families sent to the front packages filled with letters, food, clothing, and other gifts.
The German families did the same. But they did something more. They sent off wagons loaded with small Christmas trees. As night fell that Christmas Eve, the German soldiers began setting up the evergreens in their trenches. Adhering to custom, they decorated their branches with lit candles. Before long, light from hundreds of Christmas trees pierced through the winter darkness.
Less than a football field away, British lookouts soon spotted the glow and reported it to their superiors. "What was the enemy up to?" the officers wondered. Could it be some sort of trick? They issued orders for all personnel to be on alert.
But as the soldiers watched and listened, what they heard were not preparations for an attack, but the sounds of celebration. One British soldier later wrote, "there were wafted towards us from the trenches opposite the sounds of singing and merry-making, and occasionally the guttural tones of a German were to be heard shouting out lustily, 'A happy Christmas to you Englishmen!' "
After awhile, the Germans began singing Christmas carols. Upon hearing the music, the forces on the other side started to catch the Christmas spirit. "They finished their carol," wrote another British soldier, "and we thought that we ought to retaliate in some way, so we sang 'The first Noël,' and when we finished that they all began clapping; and then they struck up another favourite of theirs, 'O Tannenbaum.' And so it went on. 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 Fidéles.' And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing - two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war."
As daybreak came on Christmas Day, soldiers up and down the line, disregarding orders, began to venture into No Man's Land to meet their counterparts. Wrote one participant, "We shook hands, wished each other a Merry Christmas, and were soon conversing as if we had known each other for years...What a sight - little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front!"
They traded goods, shared pictures of their loved ones, even played a game of soccer in one area. This strange and unofficial truce endured for up to a week in some parts of the line, leaving a lasting impression on all the soldiers who lived through the experience. "[It] has been the most practical demonstration I have seen of 'Peace on earth and goodwill towards men,' " wrote one man to his family.
Unfortunately, the goodwill was not to last. Nor as it ever again to be repeated during the course of the conflict. The war raged on for another four years, killing eight million. Reaching even into our own community, it claimed the lives of six local soldiers who are memorialized by a plaque at the rear of our Church - one dedicated by President Warren Harding himself on the eve of Memorial Day, 1921.
Warfare has been a part of our existence since nearly the dawn of humanity. Sometimes it is even justified. Sometimes evil must be confronted so that it can be kept from wreaking its havoc upon the world. But that is not what the seasons of Advent and Christmas are about. That is not why we gather in our church year after year on a cold winter's night on the eve of Christmas. That is not why those soldiers sang Christmas carols to each other across No Man's Land nearly a century ago.
The reason that tears come to our eyes over and over again during this time of year is that it represents to us in a very real way our deepest longings for peace and goodwill among all people. It symbolizes all our hopes and dreams for a life of happiness and joy with our God, our families, and our neighbors both far and near. For on Christmas Eve, we celebrate the birthnight of the Prince of Peace.
Even though he would be born into a violent world, and suffering would surround him all his life, during this time of year we focus not upon these things, but upon the promise given in his newborn life. As we gaze upon that babe lying in the manger, we see in him all the yearnings of our heart. Without him, as C. S. Lewis once put it, our world would be "always winter and never Christmas."
Yet for Christmas to come alive in our day, we must do more than gaze upon him. The gift given that starry night is one that must be passed on time and time again. The concept of re-gifting is not just a gag from a "Seinfeld" episode. Ms. Manners will tell you it is a time-honored practice for individuals to re-gift to their family and friends precious belongings they once received from loved ones. In our Christian faith, the case is even more compelling. For what can be more precious to us than the gift of the Christ child born at Christmastide?
In order for the beauty of that holy night to shine in our time, we must figuratively be willing to climb out of our trenches. Whatever our outer circumstances, we must be so swept up by the spirit of Christmas, that we cannot contain its joy. We must let it overflow from our hearts and engulf those around us, whoever they may be. The gift must be given again and again. And so it is with this charge that this month I wish you all a Blessed Advent and a Merry Christmas.
It is my prayer that the gift once given in Bethlehem may become so enmeshed in our inner fabric, that in our time upon this earth, our very lives themselves will make that gift become powerfully alive, powerfully real to all those we meet.