“Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!”
~John Ferguson, 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment
“How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. Thus Christmas, the celebration of love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”
~Kurt Zehmisch, German Lieutenant
Our story takes place in northern France on Christmas Eve of 1914. World War I has been raging for half a year. When fighting began in the summer, the English soldiers were convinced the conflict would be over quickly and they’d be home with their families in time for the holidays.
By the time the first snow fell that year, the so-called Western Front stretched hundreds of miles. Countless soldiers were living in cold, muddy trenches, while tens of thousands had already died.
As was told later by numerous infantrymen, the British Expeditionary Force were huddled together in a trench, living in a space 3-feet wide by 3-feet deep. They had nothing but a few stale biscuits to eat for several days and no one could sleep through the constant sound of streaking bullets overhead. They were trying – and failing – to smoke cigarettes too wet to light. Morale was low; the soldiers shivered, tired, hungry, miserable, and homesick. Every inconvenience further fueled their deep-seated hatred of the Germans.
Late that night, there seemed to be a lull in the gunfire. That’s when the English soldiers heard the sound of Christmas carols drifting over the land. Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht (or, Silent Night, sung in its original German language.) As they listened, the British soldiers were deeply moved, and started to sing back, some while openly sobbing. Silent Night, Holy Night. When that dual-language carol was finished, a moment of still quiet drifted across the countryside. and then the enemy soldiers started shouting for the English soldiers to join them.
In tacit agreement, the soldiers each climbed from their respective trenches and tentatively moved toward each other, meeting in the barbed-wire-filled “No Man’s Land” that separated the armies. Before long, soldiers on both sides were guests at the most unusual spontaneous holiday party in history. They traded tobacco and wine, and sang song after song late into the night. The next morning, Christmas Day, the soldiers shared plum pudding, played football (what we think of as soccer), and took pictures with their arms around each other, friendly looks of delight evident on their faces. Boxing Day was reserved to repair the trenches and clear the fields of the fallen soldiers.
On December 27, the men climbed into their respective trenches, mortal enemies once again. The war would drag on for four more years, eventually taking the lives of over 15 million people.
But for a brief time, there was a break from the hell that was war.
And isn’t this the true magic of the holidays, this opportunity to show up with a full and loving heart, despite the stressful and challenging circumstances in which we find ourselves? It feels like an especially complicated and stressful time to be alive. There is so much division around us, imagined venn diagrams telling us which groups of people are acceptable and who should be considered an other. We form our belief system and then dig in, using confirmation bias to surround ourselves with people and experiences that validate those beliefs.
We forget that, deep down, we’re all human and basically want the same things. We all want health and happiness for ourselves and our loved ones, though we may disagree on how those things are achieved. We all want to sing and share a glass of wine and kick around a soccer ball. The soldiers of both sides showed great bravery that Christmas Eve by choosing to celebrate the holiday in peace. They listened to each other and leaned into their shared humanity.
Who or what do you need to make peace with this holiday season? How could you listen with more compassion?
Every time I play or sing Silent Night, I remember that listen and silent are spelled with the exact same letters.