by Thomas O’Dwyer
Christmas is one of the most remarkable festivals of human invention, a fact acknowledged by non-Christians no less than people of that faith. The arbitrary association of the birth of Jesus with December 25 merely added a new legend to a festival that was already thousands of years old in a variety of iterations that had the winter solstice as the common denominator. The traditions attached to the holiday have evolved down centuries of differing beliefs, legends, politics, lifestyles — though “tradition” may be too kind a word for the crass commercialism of the modern Christmas season in the United States of Dollarmania. It’s a far cry from Neolithic days and the people who built Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in England and Newgrange in the Boyne Valley of Ireland, who oriented massive monuments to intercept the sunrise on the morning of the midwinter solstice. Archaeologists have revealed that the residents of Durrington Walls near Stonehenge held large festivals coinciding with this turning point from shortening to lengthening days. And so it began, the accretion of customs, festivities, eating and drinking, link after link down the chain of time to our “Ho ho ho! Buy buy buy!”
Romans dedicated the feast to Saturn, and medieval Europeans booted him aside to celebrate Christ’s Mass, dovetailing devotion with drunken partying. Victorians shaped the modern Christmas sentimentally chronicled by Charles Dickens. Drunken public partying of past centuries gave way to sober child and family-centred celebrations inspired by Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their nine children. Albert introduced the Christmas tree from his native Germany. Children’s gifts, Christmas cards, crackers, and plum pudding followed, and turkey replaced the traditional goose for dinner. Santa Claus, who had morphed from Saint Nicholas of Myra in Byzantium via Sinterklaas, whom Dutch settlers brought to New York, now appeared on his reindeer sleigh in the Christmas Eve sky over England. American poet Clement Clarke Moore had defined the concept of Santa that still endures — costume, sleigh, reindeer, global gift-giving, chimney antics — in his poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (also called The Night Before Christmas).
All the attributes of the Victorians’ sentimental, gift-giving, family-loving and peaceful, happy Christmas stripped away older religious animosities (pre-Victorian Protestants regarded the holiday as Catholic subversion), and it achieved unprecedented popularity worldwide. Yet of all the legends and lore that the holiday has attracted, one event from the early 20th century remains astonishing in portraying the power Christmas holds over public hearts and minds. “It’s the most incredible Christmas ever,” wrote one excited participant in a letter to his parents. Such a sentence is likely to conjure up images of a blazing log fire (perhaps a cat snoozing on the rug), a room decked with holly and mistletoe, a fir tree with colourful lights, a glass of wine, carol singing on a radio, children playing in the background. “Incredible.”
But that man was writing from a different landscape. His was a scene of blood, mud and devastation stretching to his gloomy, misty horizon, a soggy brown plain scattered with rotting corpses, barbed wire and bomb craters, a temporary treacly silence hanging over it all, without even a bird’s song. He was writing about the Christmas Truce of 1914, near the end of the first year of World War I, a conflict that rolled out the brutality, the savagery of mechanised, industrialised total war for the first time. As Christmas crept closer through the smoke and roar of artillery and machine-gun fire, something stirred in the front-line soldiers, English and German. In their freezing muddy trenches, they spontaneously decided to demonstrate their contempt for the useless war. For a tiny sliver of time out of four years of hell, humanity flickered in a spark of seasonal peace. This event was so unprecedented, so unbelievable, that ever since, some historians have been muttering disparagingly about myth, exaggeration, even pre-Trumpian “fake news.”
At the time, military and political leaders on both the Allied and German sides were appalled by this apparent act of mutiny verging on treason. Young front-line officers and soldiers agreed, without authority, to stop fighting, fraternise, sing carols, and swap small gifts with the hated enemy. Yet the truce was well-covered in the press, including the New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, Manchester Guardian and Illustrated London News. The British public was fiercely anti-German, yet the coverage was not unsympathetic to the Christmas spirit shown by soldiers of the opposing armies. The renowned poet Siegfried Sassoon, who despised and survived what he called a jingoism-fuelled war, wrote that there often was more feeling between the troops on both sides who shared danger and privations than between soldiers and their homeland civilians. One of the few official military records of the truce was a succinct entry in the log of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment based at the hamlet of St. Yvon, south of Messines on the Belgian-French border on December 25, 2014:
A local truce. British and German intermingle between the trenches. Dead in front of trenches buried. No shot fired all day. No casualties.
When Europe dispatched its enthusiastic fighters to war in August 1914, they believed it would be over by Christmas. Instead, as the season approached, hundreds of thousands of the soldiers were already dead, and the living faced one another in trenches along a ragged line of stalemate stretching from the Swiss border to the North Sea. After weeks of heavy rain, the trenches and battlefield were a morass by December. Enemy soldiers 50 meters apart in some places shared the same miseries. The horrors and slaughter of the war mounted amid signs of far worse to come. In early December European leaders, urged by Pope Benedict XV, explored ways to secure a holiday truce. The pope appealed to “let the guns fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” The effort quickly fizzled out, but the soldiers began to take matters into their own hands on the front lines.
As Christmas Eve arrived, the rain gave way to frost and a light fall of snow, evoking Christmas-card images of the season. Kaiser Wilhelm II sent tannenbäume (fir trees) to the front to boost German morale. Soldiers began placing the trees on top of their trenches and singing Stille Nacht. Before long, voices singing Silent Night responded from the Allied lines. The Christmas truce was most successful between British and German troops but mostly failed on lines where French and Germans faced off in mutual hostility and hatred. Author Robert Graves survived the trenches despite being seriously injured and officially reported dead, later achieving fame with I, Claudius and Goodbye To All That. He wrote wryly in his much-loved short story, The Christmas Truce: “It was worse in the French line: them Frogs machine-gunned all the ‘Merry Christmas’ parties. Of course, the French go in for New Year celebrations more than Christmas.”
The truce may now be fading in our memory since all the war’s survivors have died, but it has endured for over 100 years as a unique and romantic emblem of the good that can lurk within the worst in human nature. It has appeared in multiple cultural productions of art, film, music, poetry, books and theatre. Just last October the Swedish heavy metal band Sabaton released a Christmas Truce song in their album, The War to End All Wars. It also featured in the BBC’s 2017 Doctor Who Christmas Special, Twice Upon a Time. In 1969 it was central to the British musical comedy film lampooning the conflict, Oh! What a Lovely War that includes a scene with British and German soldiers sharing booze, jokes and songs.
Few British soldiers knew any German, but some Germans spoke English. Many Germans on the front lines had worked in Britain before the war. Added to their language skills, they could swap memories of towns, girls, pubs or workplaces. Occasionally a German soldier met someone he had known years before in Britain. On Christmas Eve, several British junior officers accepted their soldiers’ requests to pause hostilities or on their own initiative ordered firing to cease — the policy even gained an unofficial name, “live and let live.” German soldiers stepped out of their trenches at dawn on Christmas Day, raising their arms to show they carried no weapons. British soldiers crossed to join them in no-man’s-land to shake hands and exchange small regimental emblems or food rations and drinks. Several soldiers who wrote home described football (soccer) games between the two sides. Former Private Bertie Felstead died at the age of 106, in 2001, the oldest man alive in Britain who witnessed the Christmas truce, and he recalled it in interviews:
Feelings of goodwill had so swelled up that at dawn, Bavarian and British soldiers clambered spontaneously out of their trenches. Shouting such greetings as ‘Hello Tommy’ and ‘Hello Fritz’, they at first shook hands in no-man’s-land and then presented one another with gifts. German beer, sausages and spiked helmets were given or bartered in return for bully beef, biscuits and tunic buttons. In the feverish exchange of souvenirs, there were suggestions for peace all day, and a football match in the afternoon, and a promise of no rifle fire at night. … There was a soccer match of sorts. It wasn’t a game as such, more a kick-around and a free-for-all. There could have been 50 on each side for all I know. I played because I really liked football. I don’t know how long it lasted, probably half an hour.
Surprisingly, letters from the front describing the Christmas truce were not censored, except for names of army units and military positions. This made it difficult for official cover-ups attempted later that said it never happened. In a more sombre and touching aspect of the truce, soldiers recovered dead bodies on both sides of the front and held joint services to bury their comrades. The letters home reveal the disbelief of the soldiers that such an event was taking place on this brutal war front, but even then they knew it was of profound and historical significance.
“Only the squelch of the sodden boots in the slushy mud, the whispered orders of the officers and the NCOs, and the moan of the wind broke the silence of the night. The soldiers’ Christmas Eve had come at last, and it was hardly the time or place to feel grateful for it.” An ordinary British private and son of a coal merchant, Frederick W. Heath of the 13th Kensington Battalion of the London Regiment, wrote that from his miserable trench. His letter home is remarkable not only for his accurate chronicle of the Christmas truce but for the elegance of his writing:
Light after light sprang up along the German front. Then quite near our dug-outs, so near as to make me start and clutch my rifle, I heard a voice. There was no mistaking that voice with its guttural ring. With ears strained, I listened, and then, all down our line of trenches, there came to our ears a greeting unique in war: “English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!” Following that salute boomed the invitation from those harsh voices: “Come out, English soldier; come out here to us.” For some little time we were cautious and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But up and down our line, one heard the men answering that Christmas greeting from the enemy. How could we resist wishing each other a merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other’s throats immediately afterwards?
[Not A Shot Was Fired: Letters from the Christmas Truce 1914 by Alan Cleaver].
The truce probably saved hundreds of lives over the two days of Christmas, but only an odd coincidence of circumstances made it possible in 1914. The war was only five months old, and great atrocities like poison gas attacks and the slaughter at Passchendale were in the future. Throughout 1915, the carnage and bitterness mounted, and the world realised the war would drag on for years, not months. As Christmas loomed in 1915, the generals and politicians on all sides determined that there would be no repeat of the 1914 events. Orders rattled down the Allied chain of command, denouncing the “unauthorised truce” of the previous year and declaring “nothing of the kind is to be allowed this year.” The orders stated that any German showing himself was to be shot. The official German side promised dire consequences for fraternisation, visits, no-fire agreements or gift exchanges. Not only were they strictly forbidden, but such actions “would verge on high treason” — a capital crime.
In his splendid letter home on Christmas 2014, Private Heath laconically reported what came after that truce:
As I finish this short and scrappy description of a strangely human event, we are pouring rapid fire into the German trenches, and they are returning the compliment just as fiercely. Screeching through the air above us are the shattering shells of rival batteries of artillery. So we are back once more to the ordeal of fire.
German Lieutenant Ernst Jünger, of the Hannoverian 19th Division on the Champagne front, recalled the scene a year later in his best-selling memoir Storm of Steel:
We spent Christmas Eve 1915 in the line and, standing in the mud, sang hymns, to which the British responded with machine-gun fire. On Christmas Day, we lost one man to a ricochet in the head. Immediately afterwards, the British attempted a friendly gesture by hauling a Christmas tree up on their traverse. But our angry troops quickly shot it down again, to which Tommy replied with rifle-grenades. It was all in all a lot less than merry Christmas.