Christmas is the day that the birth of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, is celebrated by Christians all around the world. With this in mind, it is, and always has been, a great irony that the hubris of humanity, for a thousand reasons, rationalized and irrational, continues to foster and fill the pages of history with the terrible specter and violence of war.
This fact is a sad commentary on our shared humanity, but as the poet-philosopher George Santayana wrote, “[Even] in the midst of battle, there is room for thoughts of love…” And this video that you will see here is an example of that very wisdom. It is actually a commercial made for a famous department store in England for the Christmas season this year. But it is a message that reveals both the true meaning of Christmas and the better angels of our nature.
It is about an actual event that took place on December 24th and 25th, 1914, in Ypres, Belgium, in an area known as the Western Front. The trench lines between the opposing forces of Germans and The British Expeditionary Forces, as well as the French forces, were some 30 miles long. The area between their trench lines was called “No Man’s Land.” In some places, that space was no more than 50 yards wide. They had been stalemated there, hammering each other with heavy artillery and taking turns charging one another’s lines at great cost.
On Christmas Eve, a Christmas truce was called. Though it was not observed over the entire length of the trench lines, it was honored along the British-controlled area of the lines. The weather was cold and snowy. The eery silence that follows a heavy battle had settled along the trench lines in that area.
On Christmas Day, the British troops began to hear the strains of the Christmas carol “Silent Night” coming from the German trench line. The British soldiers began to sing it with them in English. We don’t know exactly what happened, but it is said that some brave souls raised their heads above the sandbags of their trench lines and slowly came up out of the relative safety of those trenches into the No Man’s Land between the opposing trench lines.
Long story short, something unimaginable happened then. The men who had been firing at each other with murderous intent only hours before began to gather and meet each other in the middle of that No Man’s Land. They exchanged names, shook hands, and showed each other pictures of their girlfriends or families back home. It is even said that a pick-up football (soccer) game took place. The bleak landscape, so damaged by the shelling of both sides and the blind and angry hate that existed only hours before, was lost, replaced by a kind of boyish enthusiasm and playfulness.
The strangeness of these few hours must have surprised all of them. They suddenly saw each other as fellow human beings. The delusions of thoughtless hatred, supported by prejudices and fears, reinforced by tales made up of lies about each other, suddenly were shattered by the recognition that those men “over there” were just like us. They had families, and hopes and dreams just like our own.
It is a matter of fact that one cannot kill another human being unless one denies, or refuses to recognize, the humanity, the personhood, of the other. That is why we often come up with derogatory terms for the enemy, terms that take away the humanity of the enemy. Every generation of warriors can remember the words that they used to dehumanize the enemy in their own minds. It was just so along those trench lines at Ypres, Belgium, too. That is, until these moments in that empty “No Man’s Land” on Christmas Day in 1914 changed those attitudes, if only for a few hours. Now they knew each other’s names. They had shared food together and played a simple game with each other, with typical youthful abandon. They were no longer defined by the words that they had identified each other with before.
It is said that the British and German troops who had met each other in No Man’s Land that Day had to be moved to different sections of the lines when the guns started up again. They had been changed by those rare moments of pure humanity they had experienced together. They knew the men that they were ordered to fire upon “over there.”
This Christmas Truce event is a parable for us all. What those men discovered in those few hours of Christmas Day, 1914, was the truth that makes war the absurdity that it is. They witnessed and experienced a truth much larger and more powerful than all of the madness of war.
May you all know the peace of this Christmas season that those men felt for a few serendipitous hours in Ypres, Belgium, on Christmas Day, 1914.Whizzco