I wasn’t going to write anything today; as you may have noticed my blogging activity has fallen off greatly during 2019 (losing most of my subscribed readers as a result of a server change didn’t help). I no longer celebrate Christmas, having converted to Judaism a couple of years ago (and much the better for it), and there’s not much to say on this, the last Christmas holiday of the 2010s. But my fellow blogger Padre Steve wrote this wonderful and touching piece, centering around the “Christmas Truce” in the Western Front trenches of World War I, and it inspired me to write down a few thoughts. I’ve written about the truce before (here), but not in any real depth. The story struck me yesterday, however, in a newly profound way.
If you know a bit about World War I, you may have heard of the Christmas Truce. During the first Christmas season of the war in December 1914, widespread unofficial cease-fires occurred in various parts of the Western Front, especially around Ypres (in Belgium), a scene of fierce fighting throughout the conflict. As many as 100,000 troops on the British and German sides were involved. It apparently started with the singing of Christmas carols by German troops in their trenches, and placing candles on small Christmas trees poking up over the parapets. The British responded by singing carols of their own. A few brave soldiers stuck their heads up out of the trenches–usually quite a dangerous stunt–and the enemy didn’t shoot at them. The feeling of goodwill built over the next few hours. Reportedly, football matches were organized between British and German teams, taking place in “No Man’s Land” between the opposing trenches. Commanders on both sides were horrified. Newspapers in both Britain and Germany were reluctant to report on the event for days; an American paper, the New York Times, finally broke the silence on New Year’s Day. Orders went out forbidding fraternization with the enemy. Although sporadic unorganized truces did occur again later in the war, the widespread holding of fire for Christmas or any other reason was not repeated again.
A contemporary (1915) artist’s conception of the truce. The soldiers met, exchanged hats, newspapers and food items, drank together, and met one another.
Padre Steve, who spent his military career as a chaplain, writes specifically about the religious aspects of the truce, and of the war. Historians are drawn to the story of the Christmas Truce because it’s a moment of humanity in a sea of horror and depravity that is the First World War, the most vicious and horrible conflict the world had seen up until that time. We return to it again and again because, I think, it gives us hope that we can, even in extreme circumstances, rise above our instincts for violence and conflict. It’s admittedly incongruous to focus on one afternoon and evening of amity early on in a war that killed 10 to 20 million people. But the basic moral truth of the truce is still compelling: wouldn’t most of us, deep down, rather live with each other in harmony than kill each other?
Tonight, at the end of the 2010s, it is not war that plagues us but human-caused climate change and ecological collapse. Australia is burning, literally, while the country’s denialist politicians pretend nothing is wrong or even openly sneer at those who take them to task. The President of the United States, a racist narcissist devoid of empathy and deeply entrenched in his idiotic and ignorant position of denial of the world’s biggest problem, is actively helping moneyed interests destroy the planet we live on and that our children and grandchildren are trusting us to pass on to them intact. Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old girl who mustered the courage to stand up for a better world, is everywhere hounded by bullies several multiples of her age, mostly white men who can’t understand why anyone would want to make the world a better place. Three years on from the twin shocks of 2016, Trump’s election and Brexit, it’s undeniable that the world is sliding back into fascism, chaos and darkness. It’s easy to give up hope–as easy as it must have been in 1914.
The Christmas Truce was dramatized in the 2005 film Joyeux Noel. I have not seen it, but would very much like to. Here is the trailer.
The Christmas Truce shows us, though, that we do have the capacity to make better choices with our lives, and act for the betterment of others–even if for a few fleeting hours. In his first inaugural address Lincoln spoke of “the better angels of our nature.” In the coming decade humanity must begin listening to its “better angels.” In 1914 the violence of World War I made it seem like civilization itself was breaking down, and in a very real way, it was. During the 2020s more and more of us may come to view something similar happening as a result of climate change. If soldiers tasked with killing each other on a vast scale can break through the monstrous system that put them there, and even defy that system–to do the opposite of what they were put there on the Western Front to do, because it happened to be Christmas–there is, I think, hope that our own choices in the coming decade, as individuals and members of a society, can be better than the choices that have led us to this point. That’s what I’m thinking about on this Christmas Eve.
My best wishes for a positive and peaceful holiday to you and your families.