Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Silent Night

In December of 1914, at the beginning of WWI, an amazing thing happened. Somewhere along the borders of Belgium and France, peace broke out in the middle of a war. Historians call it the “Christmas Truce.” Along a 400 mile-long front, on either side of a hundred-yard wide No Man’s Land marked by barbed wires fences, inside the cold, wet muddy trenches, the soldiers stopped fighting, climbed out of the trenches and celebrated Christmas with each other.

It’s the most improbable thing to have happen yet it did. Men came home after the war to report what had happened to them. In various sections of the front lines different groups of men celebrated in different ways.

I've been reading all about it in a book by Stanley Weintraub called, "Silent Night." Several facts Weintraud give us make it easier to believe when you think about it. Both British and Germans shared a common belief and tradition of Christianity. Some of the Germans spoke a little English because they had either worked in England or in British-related businesses.

Four hundred miles of battle front is a huge area but since there were so many different ways of celebrating it appears that it wasn’t organized or planned. It simply happened.

In many sections of the front the truce began with a request to bring their dead in from the No Man’s Land, the hundred-yard section between the two fronts. Over the months entrenched in the frontline, bodies of the unlucky men trying to breech the line had accumulated and begun to rot. Each side wanted to give their comrades a decent burial. So they agreed to stop fighting long enough to let each side work in peace. Once the bodies were safely buried and no longer a visual reminder of what men can do to each other, it was tempting to delay a return to the shooting that had produced the corpses.

In one section of the front, German troops softly started singing “Still Nacht” and the British joined in with the English version of Silent Night. Then they began trading carols as the snow fell.

In another section, the bullets had slowed somewhat and a German soldier ran to the barbed wire fence separating them holding something over his head. The British watched in amazement at a man so daring. The longer they looked they realized the German had placed a small Christmas tree on the fence post. Many of the German soldiers had received trees from their families back home and were proud that the tannenbaum was Germany’s contribution to the Christmas celebration. After the soldier returned to his trench without harm, another came with his own tree, then another and another. Eventually the barbed wire along the front was lined with Christmas trees.

Food is important to wartime soldiers. And what one side lacked, apparently the other side was tired of. The British soldiers were only too happy to offer the marmalade they had grown tired of and the Germans rolled out two barrels of beer.

Tobacco was another traded item in still another section of the front. Each side had received a tin of tobacco from their monarch. The British were sent an ornate tin box in the name of Princess Mary containing cigarettes and chocolate. The German equivalent was a box of pipe tobacco and cigarettes from Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm. The boxes became trades that offered unique souvenirs.

Another souvenir of the war soldiers wanted to take home was any ornament from the other side’s uniform. Missing buttons or belt buckles were small enough to explain away to their superior officers. They made a grand souvenir. Many times soldiers in battle cut them off dead enemies' uniforms to take home. This time, they could trade with a living soldier.

There were many more different incidents of a cessation to the violence over Christmas Eve and Day. Soccer games played in No Man’s Land. Jokes. Slaps on the back. Some even exchanged addresses.

On the day after Christmas, in one section of the front, in an almost resigned acknowledgement of what they were there for, one side put out a sign saying “Merry Christmas” and the other side followed with their own sign saying “Thank you.” Warning shots were fired into the air and the war resumed.

This what can happen when armies are able to see the things they share in common. This is what can happen when men are wet and cold and tired of being away from home, when they see their own faces across the barbed wire. This is what is possible in humanity. This is what is possible.

My Christmas prayer for our world this year is that somehow we would come to a truce like the men of 1914 did, even if for a brief time. It was an incredibly improbable thing to have happen in 1914. Couldn’t we dare to pray for it again? It’s good to remind ourselves that humanity was not created for this. The men on Christmas Eve 1914 knew this.

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Beaven and I are going back to Mississippi a couple of days after Christmas. In my absence next week, I’ll leave something special for Elizabeth to post.

If you have spent any time living in Dallas you know what Christmas morning brings. You probably look forward to it every year without realizing it. And then it shows up right on schedule and you realize it wouldn’t be Christmas without it. It’s the annual reprint of Paul Crume’s column on Angels.

Merry Christmas.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You made me cry...

John