Christmas in the Trenches
One hundred years ago, on Christmas Eve, in a muddy and cold place near Ploegsteert, on the WWI front between Belgium and France, surrounded by no-man’s land littered with barbed wire and dead bodies, German and Allied soldiers climbed from their trenches to celebrate Christmas in what became to be known as the Christmas Truce.
It was a spontaneous rise of humanity celebrating their common Christian roots and faith. German soldiers placed makeshift Christmas trees on the bulwark.
Historian Stanley Weintraub wrote in his book, Silent Night, how soldiers, after agreeing not to shoot each other, sang carols in an odd fraternity of inveterate enemies turned into momentary friends by their common belief in God and the tradition of Christmas, Christmas caroling, and Christmas trees. Shaking hands, in the old Germanic tradition of showing that they were not armed, they shared cigarettes and food.
Extending the truce into Christmas Day, the combatants were able to dig graves, bury their dead, and hold memorials. Weintraub mentioned that one Scottish chaplain recited during the memorial the 23rd Psalm in two languages.
“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters…” “Der HERR is mein Hirte; mir wird nichts mangeln. Er weidet mich auf greener Aue und fuehret mich…”
The chaplain was chastised by his Bishop who thought the role of the clergy in war was to drive the soldiers into battle and to tend to their passage into God’s kingdom.
Christmas 1914 became a day of fellowship, sharing food, trading uniform buttons, and playing soccer, a sliver of normalcy in a cruel and unnecessary war.
According to Weintraub, “No one there wanted to continue the war.” Threatened by senior officers, the troops returned to fighting, “went on with the grim business at hand.”
Remembering the truce in diaries and in letters sent home to their families, soldiers described those moments in time as a “marvelously wonderful” Christmas yet a very “strange” event. German and British troops even posed for pictures together.
It was a strange event because Germans, French, and British soldiers were killing each other a few hours earlier, yet for one day, they were celebrating the birth of our savior in the anemic glow of the lit Christmas tree, casting an illuminating shadow over the muddy trenches, their misery, cold, and pain. They were a group of men fighting for the economic cause of greedy elites who were home warm and cozy with their families, celebrating Christmas, while these grunts were dying for nothing.
Director Christian Carion portrayed the truce incident in his award-winning 2005 movie, Joyeux Noel, but on a much larger scale than it actually happened. He took poetic license in order to introduce fictional characters that put a face on the pain, suffering, and the short-lived joy. Officers and troops were punished afterwards for “fraternizing with the enemy.”
World War I was a cruel trench conflict, a special kind of hell on earth, when enemies dug themselves into trenches within earshot of each other, and barbed wire in-between. Soldiers were ordered from time to time over the top, to stand up and advance, which caused them to be swiftly mowed down by machine gun fire. And if machine gun fire did not kill them, they were gassed to death in their muddy trenches, where bits of bones and strips of uniform mingled with the wall supports around the frightened and shivering soldiers, praying to survive.
It is very likely that the men who enjoyed this moment of peace during an expression of the civilized “brotherhood of men” on Christmas Day 1914, died shortly afterwards in the sacrificial gun battles or by poison gas grenade explosions.
Christmas is our beloved tradition that no war or atheist will be able to obliterate. No commercialized elf on the shelf or Kwanza can squash and transform the meaning of Christmas.
Christmas and the celebration of the gift of Christ to the world will always live in the joyful anticipation of children around the world who, with twinkles in their eyes, believe. Christmas will survive in church carols sung around the world, in our faith, in our hearts, and in our homes.
No wars, no atheists, no communists, and no theocracy can stop the Christian faith-based tradition of Christmas welling from the trenches.
Article by Ileana Johnson