On Christmas Eve of 1914, German, French and British soldiers in Belgium waited in the trenches, now sure the war would not be over by Christmas. Yet optimism that the war might soon end had not died, and, according to war lore, neither had the spirit of the season.
As letters, diaries, and memoirs report, Germans lit candles and began to sing “Silent Night.” British and French troops emerged and joined their voices in song. While most generals decried fraternizing with the enemy, the common man—the Jerry or Tommy in the trenches—set aside his differences, lay down his weapon, and bravely walked into No Man’s Land. On Christmas Day, Germans, Frenchmen, and Britons buried their dead and then played impromptu games of soccer together. In his history of the truce, Stanley Weintraub writes that the singing and soccer matches were “a candle lit in the darkness of Flanders.”
Over the years, attempts to pay tribute to the Christmas truce in short stories, plays, films, books, and radio shows have given it a mythic quality. With little official evidence that the truce or soccer games happened, some historians at first doubted the truthfulness of second-hand reports. But over the years, letters from soldiers (1) verify that small, unofficial truces occurred throughout Western Europe, and the Imperial War Museum confirms via photos the prevalence of soccer at the front to both combat boredom and keep morale high (2). Yet though these stories of 1914 truces across Europe are poignant and heart-warming, they did little to stop the progression of the war. Fighting continued the next day, and the war only intensified as mustard gas was soon introduced as a chemical weapon.
The question, then, is not about what happened on December 24 and 25 in 1914, but why the seemingly insignificant events of those two days still capture the world’s attention.
Among other events to memorialize the truces this year, the British and German armies played a commemorative soccer match on December 17 which benefited charities. The Royal Shakespeare Company is currently staging an original play, The Christmas Truce, and Anglia Tours is offering a Christmas Truce Tour of battlefields. Concerts are planned across England and Scotland where “Silent Night” will be featured, and a new online game, called Verdun, allows players to reenact battles of the First World War—and also includes options to sing carols and organize soccer games on Christmas day.
This summer, I had the opportunity attend a performance of the latest homage to Christmas 1914: the Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night: An Opera in Two Acts, performed at the Cincinnati Opera (3). Rather than the truce itself, the most moving element of the opera comes in the story of Scottish soldier Jonathan Dale. He writes frequent letters home to his mother, describing his experiences with his brother, William, who is shot on December 23. As Jonathan sings the lines of his letters home to his mother, neglects to mention his brother’s death, and instead allows her one final, redemptive image of her sons: together, singing in peace with the soldiers of several nations, playing sports.
That image—of the youthful persistence of peace in the face of war—is what illuminates Christmas 1914 in our collective memories. We want to believe that peace wins out over war. We want to believe that a soccer match in the midst of a battlefield shows us what is possible when politics are set aside. We want to believe that even in the worst of circumstances, peace is possible—and even that Christmas changes people.
That, ultimately, is what we want to believe in 2014 as we approach Christmas. The more complicated truth defies our sense of what war was or should have been. Weintraub writes that from at least December 4 forward, troops on both sides had ceased firing during mealtimes and had begun shouting across the trenches at one another, almost friendly. Meanwhile, he writes of the cold, wintry rain and muddy trenches that threatened to swallow the soldiers if they didn’t sleep standing up.
The most poignant image of Silent Night was not, in the end, the soccer match, nor was it the image of soldiers burying their dead together.
Instead, it was the image of soldiers from all sides writing letters home about the experience. The final song comes together in linguistic cacophony and musical harmony in four languages as images of letters float above the characters on a screen on the stage. Jonathan sings as he writes: “It was the most amazing thing! I shall never forget it.”
The redemption in the Christmas truce comes in the way we tell stories about it. The truce has provided a new center of gravity for many World War I narratives, allowing authors to write through war’s full range of emotions, from the horrific to the redemptive.
Mason, Amanda. “9 Facts About Football in the first World War.” Imperial War Museum. Accessed 21 December 2014: http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/9-facts-about-football-in-the-first-world-war.
Rifkin, Stanley. The Empathetic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World Crisis. New York: Penguin, 2009.
Weintraub, Stanley. Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce. New York: The Free Press, 2001.
“World War I Christmas Truce Letter Found in Staffordshire.” BBC News. 4 December 2014. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-stoke-staffordshire-30296660
1 Official documentation of the events that occurred are scarce, but as a recently uncovered letter of General Walter Congreve VC shows, the events were considered an “extraordinary state of affairs”:
This a.m. a German shouted out that they wanted a day’s truce & would one come out if he did; so very cautiously one of our men lifted himself above the parapet & saw a German doing the same. Both got out then more & finally all day long in that particular place they have been walking about together all day giving each other cigars & singing songs. Officers as well as men were out & the German Colonel himself was talking to one of our Captains.
3 The opera is based on the Oscar-nominated 2005 French film, Joyeux Noel, available for streaming on Amazon. The opera, originally performed at the Minnesota Opera in St. Paul, can be heard on NPR: http://www.npr.org/event/music/151211677/hear-the-opera-that-won-the-pulitzer.