On Christmas Eve in the winter of 1914, during a war that took eight
and a half million souls, a most unusual event took place on the
battlefields of Flanders. The British had been in a fierce battle with
the Germans, and both sides were dug in and resolute, holed-up in deep,
mud-filled trenches that seemed to stretch all the way to Hell. All
about them were coldness and dark, the memories of fallen comrades, and
the fears of battles to come.
We can't be sure how it started. Perhaps a single German soldier looked
up and saw a star. Perhaps he thought of Baby Jesus and remembered the
meaning of this night to his troops. But we do know that something that
holy night inspired the German troops to put small Christmas trees, lit
with candles, outside of their trenches. Then, they began to sing.
"Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht! Alles schläft, einsam wacht …"
The British heard the singing and were confused. Could - could the
Germans be singing "Silent Night"? They looked across the way, over the
icy "no man's land" that separated them from their enemy, and saw the
golden fire of candles lighting up trees like winter fireflies. How
strange and lovely it must've been to see such a thing in the middle of
a moonlit, bloodied battlefield! Through the wintry darkness shone a
symbol of Christ!
One of the British must've been the first to begin to sing in response.
One man must've heard the Germans' singing and so felt the peace of
Christ that he was drawn to join in. It had to start somewhere. But, in
any case, soon enough, the Germans across the way could clearly hear
their enemy singing the words of a different carol, an English one:
"The first Noel, the angels did say …"
The Germans applauded! Yes, they applauded, and then they began to sing
a third carol, "O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum…" - to which the British
replied with "Adeste Fideles, Laeti triumphantes, Venite, venite in
Bethlehem…" Ah, Latin! This the Germans knew, too! They could sing
together! And they did, their voices and British voices harmonizing and
imploring all, "Come, let us adore Him!"
Then the Germans put up signs in fractured English: "YOU NO SHOOT, WE
NO SHOOT". Some British units improvised 'MERRY CHRISTMAS' banners and
waited for a response. More placards on both sides popped up. The
Germans proposed a Christmas truce, and, all along the miles of
trenches, the British troops accepted. In a few places, allied troops
fired at the Germans as they climbed out of their trenches, but the
Germans were persistent and Christmas would be celebrated even under
the threat of impending death.
Soldiers left their trenches, meeting in the middle, in that frosty "No
Man's Land," to shake hands. The first order of business was to bury
the dead who had been previously unreachable because of the conflict.
Then they made gifts of the things sent from home -- chocolate cake,
plum puddings, cognac, coffee, butterscotches, tobacco, postcards. In a
few places along the trenches, soldiers exchanged rifles for soccer
balls and began to play games.
It didn't last forever. In fact, some of the generals didn't like it at
all and commanded their troops to resume shooting at each other. After
all, they were in a war. Soldiers eventually did resume shooting at
each other -- but only after a few days of wasting rounds of ammunition
shooting at stars in the sky instead of at soldiers in the opposing
army across the field.
But for a few precious moments there was peace on earth, and all
men's hearts were filled with the spirit of Christmas. There's
something about this holy season that changes people. It happened over
two millennia ago in a little town called Bethlehem, and it's been
happening, over and over again, ever since.