Peace on Earth: The Christmas Truce of 1914

Ironically, I wrote this post a week before seeing the Sainsbury’s ad telling the same story. I thought about changing it but decided a powerful story can always use another retelling.

It is December 24, 1914. The night is dark and bitterly cold, with a sharp frost just now settling onto a flat field scarred by deep trenches and fortified mounds of dirt. The bodies of those killed in the previous day’s fighting lie scattered here and there across the field, and beyond the trenches, the remains of skeletal houses, gutted by grenades, are just visible.

In a trench on one side of the field, a young British soldier shivers, blowing on his hands to warm them and then clamping them under his armpits. He nods to a passing friend and wonders if the man will make it through the week to greet the New Year. He closes his eyes and tries to remember, to feel, the warmth of the fire in his mother’s living room, but an unexpected noise breaks his concentration.

Is that…singing?

And it is. From across the field, in the German trenches, a melody floats toward him, at first low and quiet and fragile but then growing strong and deep and joyful.

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

It is a song he has heard before, though not often enough to know the words in his own language. Still, he hums along quietly and even dares to poke his head above the top of the trench to peer toward the German lines. What he sees steals the song from his lips.

The Germans have erected a Christmas tree – several, in fact – and all are aglow with lantern light. The young soldier presses his fist to his mouth, the wave of homesickness too strong to ignore. Across the field, the candlelight flickers and jumps about, dancing in the darkness.

The next morning, one of the soldier’s friends shouts, “Good morning, Fritz!” across the empty field until he receives a response. After a few minutes of bargaining, two soldiers – one British and one German – agree to meet each other halfway between the two trenches. In the British trench, the young soldier cringes, waiting for the shot that will signify the death of his friend. But it doesn’t come.

Soon a few more Brits climb out of the trench, and then a few more. Finally, the young soldier gathers his courage and follows them. Thirty yards from where he stands, a melded group of khaki and gray uniforms roams, laughing and chatting in short, broken phrases. As the soldier gets closer, he notices another gray uniform nearing the group from the other side.

Their eyes meet, and the young Brit sees a shock of pale white-blond hair sticking out from under the gray cap, notices the freckled face and bright blue eyes. The young German hesitates and then digs around in his coat pocket. The Brit freezes for a moment but relaxes when the German pulls out a handful of cigars and offers them to him. He takes them and fumbles in his own pocket for the pack of cigarettes he has stored there. His fingers are numb from the cold, and he drops them in the dirt. He and the German both laugh, and he hands the pack over, grinning.

The German accepts the cigarettes before holding out his right hand. It takes the young Brit a moment to realize he wants to shake hands. He hesitates only a second before taking hold.

“Merry Christmas,” he says.

“Fröhliche Weihnachten,” the German replies.

Soon, they will have to fight again, he knows. They might fight again tomorrow. Their wills are governed by more powerful men than they, and the choice of tomorrow doesn’t belong to them. But today…today, he chooses to wish the German a Merry Christmas. Today, the choice to shake this man’s hand is his alone.

“It is a great hope for future peace when two great nations hating each other as foes have seldom hated, one side vowing eternal hate and vengeance and setting their venom to music, should on Christmas day and for all that the word implies, lay down their arms, exchange smokes and wish each other happiness.”

Excerpt from a letter recorded in the Carlisle Journal, January 15, 1915

The story of this Christmas truce fascinates me. What’s the most interesting historical event you’ve heard about happening on Christmas Day?

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