‘Twas the night before Christmas, 1914 — the first Christmas of what was to become known as the First World War.
On the renowned annual Eve when many civilians everywhere in warmth and comfort usually celebrate “Peace on earth, good will to men,” it was just another bitterly cold night along the Front around Ypres, in West Flanders, Belgium. But as the evening grew darker and colder, a miracle took place. After raging on for five months straight, the gunfire stopped. Soldiers on both sides of the armed conflict set aside their weapons, crawled out of the frozen muck of their trenches, if only temporarily, and met face to face in No Man’s Land, the area between the two enemy-held lines which neither side wished to cross or seize fearing the certainty of being blown to pieces in the process.
Allied soldiers actually exchanged Yuletide greetings, “gifts” of rations, and cigarettes with their German counterparts. They drank schnapps in dented tin cups and sang “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”), caroling together in alternating languages. Some accounts of the event even say that a soccer game or two were played in the bloodstained mud, sidestepping shell holes and debris, until the ball deflated when it hit a barbed wire entanglement.
A certain Corporal John Ferguson recorded that “We shook hands, wished each other a Merry Xmas and were soon conversing as if we had known each other for years. [The rest] of our company, hearing that I and some others had gone out, followed us . . . What a sight — little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front! Out of the darkness we could hear laughter and see lighted matches, a German lighting a Scotchman’s cigarette and vice versa, exchanging cigarettes and souvenirs. Everyone seemed to be getting on nicely. Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!”
With guns gone silent and soldiers risking courts-martial, this unusual and unofficial truce endured for a night and a day, much to the dismay of their commanding officers, who were after all, there to get on with the destruction of nations. Eventually the spirit of Christmas, the fraternity, the hope all evaporated and the madness of war again took hold of the Western Front, where quiet would not return until November 11, 1918. The cost of peace that day involved far more than a few packs of cigarettes and a flask of brandy. More than eight million lives had been lost and many more wounded for the sake of a political realignment of Europe’s national geography.
Although it lasted but for a few hours on the ever-unfolding calendar of human history, the Trêve de Noël or Christmas Truce of 1914 brought precious moments of peace to the world on a narrow stretch of land ripped apart by savagery. Somehow, Christmas broke through. Now 100 years after the so-called War to End All Wars failed to do so, another Christmas is about to be observed across a globe still desperate for a reprieve from everything that deprives us of truly lasting inner peace.
It is possible, however, for nations, for families and individual hearts to receive the seemingly elusive “Tidings of comfort and joy” of Christmastime if we would but believe the lyrics of Charles Wesley’s classic hymn, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing. Declaring “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled,” his renowned carol tells us the simple “what and how” of Christmas peace: redemption through Jesus Christ, born the Prince of Peace, God’s loving gift of peace to us, clothed in human form.
This year, don’t let the wonderful miracle of Christmas Day be forgotten on December 26. The angelic message about a Savior told to shepherds and the whole world long ago is an ongoing reality, just as true today as it was then, continuing to transform lives and calm troubled hearts. Let’s sing it together.
Hail the heav’n born prince of peace!
Hail the Son of righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”