(By Janson Requist, 1776 Scholar) Long ago above Bethlehem, angels proclaimed to shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is well pleased.” Every Christmas season since that glorious night, carols, tree ornaments, and church placards have echoed this enduring refrain of peace and joy.
However, in a world full of suffering, heartache, and strife, it is easy to doubt that we will ever find peace in this life. Indeed, the 20th century was the bloodiest in world history with regimes like Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Communist Cambodia committing atrocities that made the ancient Assyrians look tame by comparison. This lack of peace has continued to be rampant in modern geopolitics: 64% of Americans believe that the U.S. is on the verge of World War III. This environment of fear and dismay has led many people to question whether the world will ever see peace again. However, these moments of quavering confidence are when stories like the Christmas Truce of 1914 reignite the hope of peace and remind us that true accord is always possible.
It was Christmas morning of 1914, and there was not much to celebrate. Weary soldiers slogged through muddy disease-infested trenches in the bitter cold, tripping over the dead bodies of friends and wondering whether a piece of shrapnel would soon cause them to join these comrades. The world was at war, and the troops were beginning to realize that this conflict would not end any time soon. The fallacious words of the Kaiser burned in the ears of the German troops: he had promised they would be home with their families by Christmas. Now, after five months of brutal combat, the men didn’t know if they would ever see home again.
In this time of gloom, some German soldiers fighting in Belgium realized something remarkable. Even though death waited around every corner, the spirit of Christmas lingered, too. That indomitable theme of hope, love, and peace could not be defeated even in the bleak ravages of the trenches. Moved, these German soldiers began to sing. In a picture reminiscent of the Whos in Whoville welcoming Christmas despite the Grinch’s thievery, these Germans belted out verses of “Silent Night” into air laden with smoke and death. Soon, across Belgium, the German troops were singing with exuberance and joy. And the British heard them. Although their officers tried to impose order, the British soldiers sang back with rousing renditions of “The First Noel” and other favorite melodies. Soon enough, German soldiers were crying out to the British, “English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas! Come out, English soldier; come out here to us.”
Overcoming their suspicion and fear, British troops throughout the land crept out from their trenches. One man, then another, then pairs, then groups, and then whole regiments poured out of the filth to join the Germans in a Christmas celebration. Among the barbed wire and craters of no man’s land, they sang, laughed, lit Christmas lights, played soccer, and even gave each other free haircuts. The men swapped souvenirs and buttons, and one British officer smoked a cigar with the best shot in the German army—an 18-year-old sniper. The roar of artillery bombardment that had split the skies the day before gave way to the sweet sound of former enemies reveling in something they had nearly forgotten could exist: peace.
Sadly, as Christmas faded, the reality of war rushed back. Frustrated officers called soldiers back to their posts and ordered them to fire mercilessly at the men they had shaken hands with just a few hours before. But something even more remarkable happened: some soldiers would not fight. Germans and British alike could not bring themselves to rain death and misery down on their newfound friends. Risking punishment for insubordination, these troops simply refused to shoot. Confounded by the conduct of their men, the German and British commanders eventually had to reposition their regiments, bringing in new troops that would inflict wretchedness and despair on each other for four more long years.
And so, the Great War carried on. Mounting casualties and the advent of poison gas obliterated nearly all feelings of affection for people on the other side of no man’s land. However, future generations never forgot that legendary Christmas Truce of 1914 when mortal enemies joined together in harmony. In fact, reenactments of the Christmas Truce still occur each Christmas.
The treasure of the Christmas Truce is that these British and German soldiers recognized the secret of peace. True peace does not depend on one’s circumstances or conditions. If it did, the angels’ promise of coming peace on earth would have been empty and cruelly deceptive. Indeed, sometimes peace is impossible without conflict; World War II is one such example. However, regardless of the situation, true peace can still be found by extending love and grace to your fellow man—whether German or British, French or Italian, Democrat or Republican. Although fleeting in this life, such true love and grace was embodied in the first Christmas when the Son of God showed the ultimate selfless love that brought true, everlasting peace on earth.