Friday, December 7, 2012
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 7, 2012
The Christmas Truce
World War I began in August 1914. It was the bloodiest and most destructive conflict human beings had ever waged. Four major Eurasian empires - the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian - were destroyed, and twenty million people, military and civilian, were killed. The Industrial Revolution made it possible for the development and use of increasingly lethal weapons. Both sides believed fervently that they were in the right, which exacerbated the ferocity of the fighting. Initial battles along the Western Front (from Belgium through France) failed to gain either side a significant advantage, so they dug trenches and waged a war of attrition with artillery barrages followed by human-wave charges across no-man's-land strewn with barbed wire. Casualties were horrendously high.
On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested a temporary halt in the hostilities so the troops could celebrate Christmas. None of the governments issued an official cease-fire order, probably distrusting the enemy to reciprocate. Soldiers, though, took matters into their own hands and effected an unofficial truce that some have called "the Christmas miracle." A British soldier, Graham Williams, described what happened:
I was gazing toward the German lines and thinking what a different sort of Christmas Eve this was from any I had experienced in the past when suddenly lights began to appear along the top of the German trenches. These were Christmas trees which were adorned with lighted candles burning steadily in the still, frosty air! Other guards had, of course, seen the same thing, and quickly awoke those asleep in the shelters, to "come and see this thing which had come to pass." Then suddenly our opponents began to sing "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht." They finished their carol and we thought that we ought to retaliate in the same way, so we sang "The First Nowell," and when we finished they all began clapping. And so it went on. First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until we started up with "O Come, All Ye Faithful" and the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words "Adeste Fideles." And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing - our nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.
The emotional and spiritual power of Christmas carols in this instance overcame belligerent hostility - not enough to stop the war, alas, but those who participated in the singing of these carols would never forget the miracle of that moment.
Fortunately we do not have to sing those familiar carols under such trying conditions, but as we stand on the steps at the conclusion of our Service of Carols, Candles, and Communion on Christmas Eve, who knows what lives we touch among those who stop what they are doing to listen? Perhaps they gain a sense of peace, of hope for the future, and of gratitude for the love God showed the world on that first Christmas. Regardless of whether the listeners benefit, I know those who sing the carols feel their power to bless.
- George Pruden