One of my favorite Christmas stories recalls the Christmas Eve Truce of 1914. Do you know the story? Over the next few years, as we commemorate the 100 year anniversary of World War I, you will hear about it.
This month I’ve been thinking a lot about traces of the gospel in the Christmas stories we love. I find such traces when I hear about Christmas in those trenches.
A hundred years ago, the nations of Europe went to war with optimism and fanfare. Everyone thought it would be a short affair, that they would be home by Christmas. But it was not to be. Europe descended into chaos. It was the beginning of a long war. Each side was out to crush the enemy. The British sought to rid the map of every trace of German and Hun. The French went to rescue the children of Alsace. And the Germans were out to crush the English. These sentiments met the new technology of modern war on the fields of France and Belgium. This was the war that introduced tanks, chemical warfare, aerial bombardment, and made machine guns common. At the outset, soldiers charged with fixed bayonets and the tactics of a pre-modern age. Then commanders watched in horror as a third of their men would be mowed down in five minutes. Digging trenches was the only way to survive the sweeping machine gun fire.
Life in the trenches was grim. There they endured heavy artillery and poison gas. They became infested with lice and rats. Disease took hold. When temperatures dropped, soldiers froze. Snipers picked off those who raised their heads.
The war claimed some 16 million lives, some 30 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.
Between the trenches was a no man’s land littered with barbed wire and death.
But in December 1914, when hopes for a quick resolution faded, something strange happened.
As Christmas day approached, on several places along the front lines, German Christmas trees began to appear above the trenches with tiny candles flickering in the night. Scottish pipers began playing carols. Some British soldiers started singing Christmas songs. German soldiers responded with Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. British solders joined in—silent night holy night.
A few British officers ventured over to the German line against orders and arranged a truce that extended to Christmas Day. All of a sudden soldiers left trenches and intermingled. They exchanged—chocolates, cakes, tins of meat, and cigarettes. Family photos were shared. The dead were buried. In one place, a joint worship service was held for their fallen brothers. There were even soccer games on no man’s land.
We’re told that as many as 100,000 soldiers participated in this unofficial Christmas truce. The weapons of war fell silent. For two days there was peace and the spirit of Christmas reigned. Enemies became friends.
Why is this one of my favorite Christmas stories? For two reasons. First, because the only thing that could stop the Great War was Christmas—remembering the nativity of Jesus Christ—the prince of peace. Scripture says of Christ that “he himself is our peace.” He is the one who has the power to reconcile those who are alienated. He breaks down dividing walls of hostility. Not simply by emanating warm fuzzies. It happens by the shed blood of Christ on the cross. That’s what kills hostilities and brings deep peace. (Ephesians 2.13-16)
But there’s a second reason why this is a favorite Christmas story. You see, both of my grandfathers fought in World War I. One was German and fought for Germany. The other was Scottish and fought for Britain. They spent several Christmases in those horrid trenches and wrote home about it. Both were wounded by shrapnel or mustard gas. Both dreamed of going home. Miraculously, both survived.
I do not know if my grandfathers experienced this truce. But I know they did experience Christmas in the trenches. And I know that Christ transformed both of their lives.
Sadly, the Christmas truce of 1914 ended. On December 26th, armies went back to the trenches. Cooler heads prevailed. The slaughter recommenced. Those who initiated the truce were replaced.
But the one thing that stilled those guns was Christmas. And it was the Christ of Christmas and Calvary who transformed the bitterness of my grandfathers. The wall of hostility between my German and British ancestors was taken down. Both later immigrated to America. Both ended up at the same church, which is where my parents met. Both families began to build on a new foundation—because he, that is, Jesus, was their peace.
That story of the Christmas truce of 1914 contains echoes of the gospel which can still be heard.