Episode 47: The Christmas Truce of 1914

DESCRIPTION: This unusual episode consists of nothing more than a recording of Jack reading a piece he wrote on the Christmas Truce of 1914—a most peculiar event in World War I that raises the question of just what Jesus had in mind for his true followers. Jack debuted the piece at the Montana Christmas! concert on Saturday, 17 December 2022 at the Lincoln Center in Billings, MT. It is accompanied by a digitally-produced version of a rare variation of the tune of Away in a Manger. At this point, Jack is not sure whether this is his own version of the melody, as it has congealed in his mind for over a decade before he wrote it down, or whether it’s close to some other rare version he has actually heard before.

It was in August of the year 1914 that World War I broke out—that “war to end all wars”—as the warmongers had called it.  The soldiers had all been promised they would be “home by Christmas”.  But only a liar or a fool would have promised such a thing. 

And there the humans stood in the trenches, along the Western Front—in Germany on the one side, and in Belgium and France on the other—these soldiers who had not started the thing but who were expected to give their very lives for the cause.  Many of them were volunteers, and the war had broken their families, for a time, at least—and their careers and their routines of life and their dreams.

As Christmas drew near, the promised end of the war was nowhere in sight.  The suffering of each side was heavy.  Their opposing trenches were 300 yards apart in some places, and much closer in other places. And the neutral ground between was called “no man’s land”.  Anyone climbing up out of his side’s trench was likely to be shot down immediately by rifle fire from the other side.

Food was scarce, and the weather was cold. Many of them had no dry place to rest in the muddy trenches.  If war had seemed glamorous to any of them before it started—as it often does to some of the young—few would still think so now.  And it was relentless, the daily death and suffering.  The bodies piling up.  The wounds festering.  The soldier’s hearts longing for home.  Longing for rest.  Longing for peace in a conflict that made the very worst days of their previous lives seem like holidays.

And whether they knew it or not, they were doing what humans had been doing since Satan had first begun to attack the peace between man and God, and between man and man, and between nation and nation.  They were caught up in the rush of it all, full steam ahead, and unclear as to who was steering the thing.  Attack and counterattack. Rifles.  Mortars.  Artillery.  Hunger.  Cold.  Mud.  And the hatred.  The hatred for the other side that they were taught in order to motivate them to fight—since normal people aren’t really the sort to want to give up their lives in order to go off to fight other normal people to the death.  So they had to be taught to hate—to vilify the other side—to see them as enemies, and as less-than-human.  And this is pretty much the way it has always been done, even to this day.

But then, the strangest thing happened. No one seems to know when it started exactly, but sometime on Christmas Eve, in a section of the front near Ypres (EE-prə) in Belgium, the troops on both sides were especially reflective on the holiday, and had begun to sing songs of home, and songs of Christmas.  And it is believed that in a quiet moment—in the lull between songs—one of the German soldiers had started to sing.  And in the spirit of the moment, he dared to climb up out of the trench, where those on both sides could hear him.  And he sang in German:

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.
Alles schläft, einsam wacht.
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar.
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh’.
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh’.

And some on the other side stood up and sang it in English.

Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

And before they knew it, there they were, many of them standing in no man’s land—at peace, and not hating one another.  They approached and shook hands.  They exchanged food.  Some of the Germans had tiny Christmas trees with tiny candles tied to the boughs.  They talked—best they could with the language barrier. And they sang.  And they looked at each other’s family photos.  And they talked about what they had in common—about places they had been, and the occupations they had, and their dreams.

And they were at peace.

And it lasted all night and all day on Christmas Day.  They had burial ceremonies together for their dead.  They bound up the wounded. They continued to fraternize in this unofficial truce—this armistice.  They even played soccer together, at first just kicking the ball about, but then in an organized game.  (The Germans won.)

And they were at peace.  And their former enemies were now humans, quite like themselves.  And they understood.

But the high commands on both sides got enough of this peace quickly, and by the day after Christmas, they had managed to get the killing started again—as if the peace had never happened.  As if those soldiers hadn’t been onto something.  As if peace and good will could never work as a sustainable way of life.  As if it simply would not do to stop the wars that the powers start for their sinister purposes.  As if it would not do to stop making enemies of people who are quite like us, with our quirks and our failures and our passions and our dreams.

This world has long marveled at what happened on those two days.  Some even argue that it’s just a hoax, and that it never happened.  But there’s just too much evidence.  Too many letters home.  Too many newspaper stories.  Too many photographs and memoirs.

It happened.

And I wonder about the lives of those men who were there.  I wonder how many of them saw that heavenly peace, and then walked away, like it had never happened.  And conversely, I wonder how many of them were permanently changed by it—how many would learn not to hate others on command, and not to see their fellow men as enemies, but as fellow men.  And I wonder how many would realize that peace is not just about walking away from war, but about walking away from all vengeance, both grand and petty.  And not only in walking away from the vengeance, but in replacing it with good will toward God and toward our fellow man—not only in what we say, and what we do, but in what we think—and even, if you can accept it, in what we feel toward them.

Many men were caught up in such a spirit that day.  This song about the birth of God himself into a human body had stilled their souls and set them aright for a change, in a way that cannot be denied or dismissed.  And it is a wonderful story. 

But I wonder.  I wonder what became of them each afterward, when the killing started back.  And I wonder what became of them when the war was finally over some four years later—when forty million humans had been killed in the final tally.  I wonder whether they would let that experience shape the rest of their lives as fully as it could—as it should.  I wonder how many of them would let that Stille Nacht calm their souls forever.

And I wonder this about us, too.