I couldn’t pass up the 100th anniversary of the Christmas truce, December 24, 1914. I used it to begin my Christmas Eve homily.
Christmas Eve, Dalton MA
People did not anticipate a long war at the outset of World War I. But after five months of war the battle lines became defined by a network of trenches from the English Channel snaking to the Swiss border. This “short” war soon became a war of attrition. Allied and German armies faced each other across no man’s land, sometimes only thirty yards apart. Both sides fortified their trenches. Some war fatigue had already taken hold.
The distance in some places was so close that the men from each side would sometimes hold up wooden signs to each other or even shout to each other. It was a sort black humor, especially after a heavy barrage. They might shout to each other “Missed” or “A little to the left.”
Tonight is the 100th anniversary of a wartime truce between German and Allied soldiers. Across the front a temporary peace broke out. The temperatures plunged on Christmas Eve after weeks of wet rain which gave a feeling of a “white Christmas.” The informal communications between the two sides during the weeks leading up to December 24 inadvertently forged a type of comradery. The truce was not limited to one location nor was it uniformly observed along the length of the trenches.
Traditionally, Germans celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve with a large family meal and a gift exchange. They began to sing, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht! Alles schlaft, einsam wacht…” Silent Night was still relatively unknown outside of Germany. Some put up a Christmas tree festooned with lanterns on the embankments above their trenches. An account published in some of the English papers described, “Their trenches were a blaze of Christmas trees, and our sentries were regaled for hours with the traditional Christmas songs of the Fatherland. Their officers even expressed annoyance the next day that some of these trees had been fired on, insisting that they were part almost of the sacred rite.”
A letter from “Rifleman C H Brazier, Queen’s Westminsters, of Bishop’s Stortford: ‘You will no doubt be surprised to hear that we spent our Christmas in the trenches after all and that Christmas Day was a very happy one. On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Pudding’, ‘A Happy Christmas’ and ‘English – means good’, so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches. Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ’”
Some truces were arranged on Christmas Eve and others on Christmas Day. Some had formal arrangements, such as a designated end to the truce. Others were informal where the soldiers who had been fraternizing could not bring themselves to shoot at each other hours later. Some truces lasted until New Years.
The truce allowed the soldiers to bury their dead, swap jokes, exchange souvenirs, sing hymns and songs, and exchange information about the war. Because of military regulations, many of the soldiers risked disciplinary action for fraternizing with the enemy, but they proceeded to celebrate Christmas together anyway despite their nations’s enmity. In one location, the German and English troops set up a large table between the two trenches where they ate a meal together, swapped souvenirs and gave each other small keepsakes. The German soldiers even noted in their conversations that they disagreed with the Kaiser about going to war at all.
Though enemies, they were first men and because of Christmas saw each other as men not as enemy combatants. The truce happened because these men were able to purge their hearts of all the negative stuff: fear, anger, bitterness, resentment, jealousy, and greed. They allowed love, which also resided their hearts to grow and fill the empty space that remained once they cleared out the negative stuff. Love in all of its fullness grew in their hearts: compassion, mercy, gratitude, generosity, forgiveness, peace, and grace.
We could call this truce a Christmas miracle, which it was. But we shouldn’t think of this truce or Christmas itself as a miracle when wishes come true. Christmas is not December 25 as much as it is a state of the world. Though we think of Christmas as the day Christ was born, it is more than that. It is the day God came down to earth and squeezed himself into a tiny baby born in a stable to a barely teenage mother in order to share our common lot, to struggle with us, and to suffer the cruelties of our world. God came to us in love for us in order for us to purge our hearts of all the negative stuff. God in Jesus showed us that love is a verb, which means it is actions we undertake towards each other.
One hundred years ago tonight, God broke into our world and showed us that despite enmity, peace is possible. Christmas is the end of our world’s darkness and the dawn of a new day that is God’s reign on earth. Christmas tells us that another world is possible. It is a world where love prevails over fear. It is a world where peace rooted in love proclaims true justice for all people. It is a world where God’s abundance is shared so no one will need to know or suffer from deprivation and scarcity. It is shalom, a peace that is beyond the absence of violence and embraces the wholeness of Creation.
We celebrate Christmas to remind us that another world is possible. And that world becomes real when we let love fill our hearts and we place our faith and trust in God’s ways so that we can share that love with family, friends, neighbors, strangers, and even our enemies. Christmas is hope born anew rooted in God’s radical, inclusive love.
Tonight we celebrate that God came down to be among us in Jesus. The name is Emmanuel, God with us. Let us ponder this in our hearts.