December 25, 1914: The Christmas Truce

 

It did not change the course of the war, or even effect the outcome of a single battle, but the truce that broke out among French, German, and English troops on the first Christmas of World War I is one of those few grace-filled moments in history that tells us that human beings may not be as bad as we thought.

The actual events of the day were unremarkable. A bunch of teenagers talked to each other, shared some food, played some soccer, and refrained from killing each other for the better part of 24 hours. Had this been a truce declared by superiors, and officially endorsed by the belligerent nations, nobody would even remember that it happened.

But it wasn’t. The countries didn’t agree to a truce. The officers didn’t want their soldiers fraternizing with the enemy. They wanted them to be killing the enemy. That’s how enmity works. But the truce happened anyway. Unofficially and without any announcement. It emerged spontaneously across the battle lines, at hundreds of different points. Without anybody giving them permission, the soldiers just stopped having a war.

To my mind, this is the most Christmassy thing that has ever happened in the whole history of Christmas. It has long been a cliché that people are nicer to each other during around Christmas time. To some extent, this is a quantifiable fact.  The month of December accounts for 30% of all charitable giving in the United States. And Christmas has been established, in rigorous peer-reviewed studies, to be the happiest day of the year.

One does not need any particular religious belief to get all of the benefit of Christmas niceness. The peace and goodwill of the season is largely secular. Maybe it is because we are thinking about what to buy for people. Or maybe we are trying to think of charitable ways to spend our money so we don’t have to pay taxes on it. Or maybe it’s just too cold to think about anything other than huddling together.

But I like to think of it as a truce. By the end of the year, I think, we are just tired of fighting all the time, so we relapse into loving people a little bit more because there is actually a huge part of our human nature that would rather think well of people than, literally or rhetorically, tear them to pieces.

I have been thinking a lot about Christmas truces this December, after a long year of political and cultural battles in which I, like most people I know, genuinely feel that we are battling for the soul of our nation and our world. October and November have been brutal, but being outraged all the time is hard work. It requires a lot of cognitive and spiritual energy that I would rather use for something else. And there are a lot of large-scale ideological forces on both sides that have a material interest in keeping us shouting at each other instead of sharing food and playing soccer.

But here’s the thing: we don’t have to do it. We don’t have to shout and scream and insult each other. We can talk instead. Have actual human interactions, and recognize that we have more things in common with just about everybody than we have differences—and that even those differences don’t require us to fight all of the time.

It was not in December, but in March of 1861 that Abraham Lincoln spoke what I consider to be the greatest prophetic words in our nation’s history. On the eve of the Civil War, with seven states already having declared their secession from the Union, Lincoln took the oath of office, became the President of the United States, and said,

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

What happened on December 25 of 1914 had a lot to do with these “better angels of our nature” that Lincoln was talking about. For most of the year, the other angels were on display. World War I was a nasty mix of tribalism, jingoism, aggression, and fear. These, unfortunately, are very much part of our nature. But they are not the only part. There are better angels in there too, and they can come out sometimes and do surprising things.

For whatever reason, Christmas makes it a little bit easier for these angels to emerge. It is a time for truces. It is a time for us to realize that peace actually is something that we can declare any time, unilaterally, without anybody’s permission. When enough of us to this, there is at least a chance that it will break out all over the world.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I enjoyed Joyeux Noel, a movie that is a fictionalized account of the truce.

  2. I am so so tempted to do a “yes . . . but not this time.” But I won’t. Peace.

  3. Eric Facer says:

    It is worth remembering that at the time of the Christmas truce, the opposing sides had only been fighting each other for about five years. The following year, the truce was replicated at very few points along the front. By 2016, the fighting had become so bitter that soldiers on neither side were inclined to entertain a cease fire during the holiday season. Perhaps a similar fate awaits us if both sides do not dial down their rhetoric.

  4. Our family loves the Christmas Truce story. We have a beautiful hard bound book written about it that we display and read each Christmas Season. We need to keep these “better Angels” memories alive.

  5. Eric Facer says:

    Correction: “had only been fighting each other for about five MONTHS.” (Sorry about that.)

  6. I see the Christmas truce as a missed opportunity. Although the combatants had predicted this war would end ‘before the leaves fall’, the armies had settled into their trenches by Christmas 1914, and everyone could see this would cost many more lives than anticipated. The Christmas truce was an opportunity for both sides realize what they’d gotten themselves into, and end the war. God softened people’s hearts, and they rejected that feeling and turned back to bloodshed.

  7. Thanks for this post, Michael. You’ve called me to repentance. I’ll try to be better.

  8. “one of those few grace-filled moments in history that tells us that human beings may not be as bad as we thought.”

    OK, so they paused for one day and then proceeded to ruthlessly slaughter each other. I know that these Christmas stories about the soldiers on opposing sides coming together to celebrate Christmas seem touching, but they really are overshadowed by the fact that it did nothing to stop what would become a wholesale extermination of millions and millions all over some stupid geopolitical disputes. Consider me untouched by the Christmas story and other such stories. Humans are natural-born killers whose murderous impulses are only curbed by sophisticated power-balancing mechanisms.

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