Summary: Miracles do happen when we hold onto the true meaning of Christmas.
It was 1914. The war to end all wars would not be over by Christmas as had been so optimistically predicted. On the western front, it had ground down to a barbarous war of attrition fought from muddy, waterlogged, vermin-infested trenches, where one had to be constantly wary of artillery and snipers. The trenches truly were hell on earth. They were such dreadful places that it would seem that the soldiers could not help but feel some compassion for their enemies, who were suffering under similar conditions.
Opposing trenches were only yards apart in places, and British and German soldiers sometimes shouted to and waved signs at each other, often using black humour that probably helped to preserve their sanity in this hideous environment.
December 1914 had been a wet month in western Europe, and the trenches had become quagmires, but on Christmas Eve the temperature had dropped and a thick frost had appeared, giving the setting of a traditional white Christmas.
Soldiers on both sides had been given gifts of food, alcohol and tobacco by their respective countries. The Germans had also been given small Christmas trees, which they decorated with lanterns and set up on the parapets above their trenches.
Although there was still some shelling and shooting in places along the front, the guns and rifles slowly went quiet, and in their place a sound rang out that could not have been more surreal in this place of unspeakable horror:
Stille Nacht, Heil’ge Nacht
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
The British responded with carols in English, and before long, both sides were singing carols to each other. Greetings were shouted, and soldiers invited their respective enemies to meet in no man’s land. British and German soldiers climbed out of their trenches. They shook hands; exchanged gifts of tobacco, liquor and food; and ate and drank together. Some swapped addresses and some played informal games of football. One such game even evolved into a proper regulation match, with caps used as goalposts. The Germans won 3-2.
This spontaneous truce was not all celebration. It also enabled the slain to be buried. Soldiers from both sides gathered together, read Psalm 23, mourned their dead and paid their respects.
Not surprisingly, the higher levels of the military were not amused and were determined to put a stop to such flagrant disregard of the war. In some sectors, the truce only lasted through Christmas night, but in other places it lasted into the New Year and beyond.
During the remainder of the war, artillery bombardments were ordered on Christmas Eve to discourage further truces, and soldiers were rotated through different sectors of the front to reduce familiarity with the enemy. While there would be several subsequent minor truces, there would be nothing on the scale of what had happened in 1914.
So what was it that prompted mutual enemies to stop killing each other and exchange peace and goodwill instead?
It was not a jolly man in a red suit whose current image owes more to Coca Cola marketers than to the fashion sense of Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas. It was not saturation advertising by retailers telling us that the real meaning of Christmas is spending as much as possible. Neither was it any belief that Christmas is about eating and drinking until we can consume no more.
No, these soldiers stopped shooting each other because of a baby, a baby whom had been born over 1900 years earlier in a filthy manure-ridden stable, a setting with some similarities to their terrible trenches, but this baby was no ordinary child.
This child was the Christ and the Prince of Peace. Both divine and human, He was almighty God in the body of a helpless baby. Through Him, all peoples could be reconciled with God. This child inspired soldiers enduring the most awful conditions imaginable to realise that there was something bigger than their conflict.
Yet how many of us today actually do stop to think beyond the commercialised hype about the real meaning of Christmas. A recent Tui billboard proclaimed “Let’s take a moment this Christmas to think about Christ. Yeah right.” That billboard was hastily removed after complaints, but I was glad that Tui had erected that billboard, for it actually did make people think about the Christ child, even if only momentarily.
While we do not know the actual date of His birthday and it is highly unlikely that it was 25 December, that does not matter. Today is the day that the Church in the west celebrates His birth, and it was such a celebration of this day that brought short-lived peace to the battlefield in Belgium.
The season of Christmas lasts twelve days in the Church’s calendar. Christmas is not, as it seems some retailers would have us believe, a time of reckless spending and partying that began some time in October and finishes today, yet by this afternoon many of us will have gorged ourselves silly on rich food and cheap sparkling wine and will settle down to sleep it off amongst empties and already broken toys, thinking it is all over and wondering what to do with all that leftover ham.