The Christmas truce of Christmas Eve, 1914 was a wonderful parenthesis of respite in the animosity of what would become the bloodiest war in human history.
As reports have been collated of that mysterious peace that washed over the Western Front on that silent night, it seems it all started with well-wishing and spontaneous singing of Christmas hymns. The Germans offered their hearty a cappella rendition of Stillenacht from their muddy trenches. In good cheer, from the British side—and by some accounts even in some French trenches—hymns of praise to God resounded throughout the empty battlefields.
Captain Robert Patrick Miles of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry division wrote in a letter that was published in the Daily Mail in January 1915:
Friday (Christmas Day). We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front. The funny thing is it only seems to exist in this part of the battle line – on our right and left we can all hear them firing away as cheerfully as ever. The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting ‘Merry Christmas, Englishmen’ to us. Of course our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man’s land between the lines. Here the agreement – all on their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. The men were all fraternizing in the middle (we naturally did not allow them too close to our line) and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night.”
But what happened the day after Christmas? The opponents on either side of no man’s land cocked their guns and fired at each other with an aim to kill. Captain Miles, who wrote the letter above, was killed in action before New Year’s Eve.
Despite the brief interlude of religious observance and quiet reverence for the night commemorating the birth of the Prince of Peace, the enemies’ reconciliation was short-lived as the following day all returned to “normal” business: the business of death and destruction.
I understand that the soldiers on both sides were compelled to return to arms by the cause they were commissioned to fight for. In fact, with a seemingly unintended British dry irony, Captain Miles wrote of the Germans’ tardiness to get back to the war the day after Christmas:
The beggars simply disregard all our warnings to get down from off their parapet, so things are at a deadlock. We can’t shoot them in cold blood…I cannot see how we can get them to return to business.”
I realize the war could not have been brought to an end by sentimentality, and yet it does seem a pity that the irenic effects Christmastime has on so many does not last beyond Boxing Day.
My church’s attendance swells significantly on Christmas Day. (Incidentally, in South Africa the universal custom is to attend church on Christmas Day, regardless of on which day of the week it falls). But the swelling abates noticeably by the next week’s worship gathering. What happens to all these people the day after Christmas? They go back to being their unchanged selves until the next yuletide pause in their devotional apathy.
Imagine if the glimpse of peace experienced by the warring parties on the Western Front in 1914 had just kept on spreading, instead of abruptly ending the next day. And imagine if those who showed up to a worship service in honor of the Savior of the world on December 25 just kept on coming back week after week, and just kept on wanting to worship Jesus for coming to save us, and just kept on basking in the peace and joy and hope that comes from a saving faith in God. Am I beginning to sound like an evangelical John Lennon?
What we can learn from the short but sweet Christmas Eve truce of 1914 is that being at peace is vastly superior to being at war…but enmity doesn’t just go away without a hard-earned, blood-bought peace.
Christmas makes people feel at peace with Jesus for a short spell, but their true peace with their Creator can only be accomplished by an unconditional surrender to him—the willingness to repent of sin, lay down weapons of rebellion, and trust in the mercy and love with which he secured our forgiveness by his own blood. That gospel message is not seasonal; it must be proclaimed in season and out by we who have experienced its lasting effects.