Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Essence of the Season

This post was published last Christmas Eve:

It happened -- actually, the beginning of it happened -- one hundred years ago tonight.

When Christmas Eve came round in 1914, Europe was in the throes of trench warfare that walked the line between brutality and barbarism. The weaponry of the age was advanced but the medical care was not, and therefore the percentage of battlefield wounds that resulted in death was much higher than it is today.

The war that was raging in 1914 seems incomprehensible to most of us living in 2014. It is difficult to understand how the assassination of an Austro-Hungarian archduke while he was visiting Bosnia could plunge all of Europe, and eventually the United States, into a war in which the main foes were Britain and Germany. While it was happening and for some time afterward, it was referred to simply as The Great War. Nobody could have thought to call it World War I -- not, that is, until World War II erupted a mere two decades after The Great War ended.

As you would expect in the northerly latitudes where the war was unfolding, its western front was cold on December 24th of that year. After dark enveloped the countryside near Ypres, Belgium, soldiers from Britain's 18th Infantry Brigade heard their German counterparts singing "Silent Night," though of course the Germans were singing it in their own tongue as "Stille Nacht."

Some accounts say the British responded by singing "Silent Night" back to the Germans, while others say they responded by belting out "O Come All Ye Faithful." Though the exact exchange is now lost in the fog of time, there is no doubt that enemy soldiers reached out in peace by singing Christmas carols to each other across the no man's land which separated their foxholes.

After dawn broke the following morn, the soldiers emerged anxiously and met in no man's land, opting on Christmas Day to lay down their arms and mingle as human beings. They chose, if only for a day, to embrace their commonality and ignore the deadly designs drawn up for them by politicians in distant capitals. They talked -- haltingly given their different languages, but effectively nonetheless -- and they exchanged trinkets as gifts. They even played soccer, using actual soccer balls in some games and empty corned beef cans in others.

And those references to "some" games and "other" games reflect the most remarkable thing about the impromptu civility shown by enemy troops: It occurred not only near Ypres but at multiple spots along the western front. 

Friendly Limey-vs.-Kraut soccer matches popped up in several places. The most famous involved Germany's 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment facing a UK brigade comprised mostly of Scotsmen. The Germans won that one by a score of 3-2 and one of their lieutenants, Johannes Niemann, wrote that "us Germans really roared when a gust of wind revealed that the Scots wore no drawers under their kilts."

Some military leaders were appalled that their charges were fraternizing with the enemy, and some lower-ranking personnel were also appalled. According to a German soldier in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment, one of the regiment's corporals said with disgust that "such things should not happen" and went on to ask if the Germans participating in the friendliness had "no sense of honor left at all." The corporal was 25 years old and his name was Adolf Hitler.

Of course, the resistance of leaders and of people like the young Hitler serves only to strengthen the significance of what happened when those unofficial truces took place on December 24th and 25th, 1914. They are known collectively as the Christmas Truce and have, to a certain degree, become mythologized as the intervening century has passed. But the Christmas Truce did happen and continues to serve as a testament to the inner goodness that dwells in humanity -- the inner goodness that can come to the fore and propel us upward in the darkest of times.

To a maddening degree, that goodness is locked in a struggle with the badness that also dwells within us all. Man's divided heart is a paradox that vexes anyone who dares think about it. It drove Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to agonize that "the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"

The beauty of Christmas is that it spotlights the good and gives rise to the good without denying the existence of the bad. In his old age, Ebeneezer Scrooge was visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, and compelled to make a choice -- to choose between continuing on a road to perdition or switching to a road to salvation. There is no sugar-coating in the telling of Dickens's tale, and we remember the glory of Scrooge's salvation precisely because of how close he came to experiencing the horror of the alternative.

But back to the Christmas Truce: A full century later it stands out as a shining example of how the power of good, genuinely felt and properly perceived by individual human beings, can overcome the power of bad.

In the most tangible sense, the triumph of that 24-hour period was brief because it was not repeated in the subsequent Decembers of World War I. As the war unfolded, commanding officers tightened the clamps to prevent a recurrence of the truce. Plus, a rapid increase in the use of chemical weapons made people less inclined to take the risk of being the first to step into no man's land in plain view of enemy forces.

However, intangibles are just as real as tangibles; and they often turn into tangibles; and they often bear fruit much later in the growing season of Time, long after early-season tangibles have withered and died.

One hundred years later, after the subsequent invention of nuclear weapons and subsequent proliferation of mass-scale terrorism, a strong case can be made that old-timey World War I remains the cruelest and bloodiest war the world has ever seen. And yet, the Christmas Truce is its most remembered and talked-about event -- more so than the battles of Scimitar Hill, Verdun, and the Argonne; more so that the sinking of the Lusitania; more so than the downing of the Red Baron; more so that the arrival of American doughboys; more so than the Armistice.

Corporal Hitler despised the Christmas Truce, and today he is remembered as such a vile character that everyone but the lowest reprobates recognizes him as the personification of evil. Conservative and Liberal, Jew and Gentile, Religious and Atheist, Germanic and non-Germanic, European and non-European -- virtually all of humanity is in agreement that Hitler's name should be infamous forever. Looking back with the fullness of time we see that the commoners who enacted the Christmas Truce, by singing at night and shaking hands by day, did more to stir man's heart than the corporal who would go on to mesmerize millions and rule a nation.

Every Christmas we should recall the unofficial truce of 1914, but this Christmas is its centennial and it deserves to be loudly celebrated. We should make a point of telling our kids about it and holding it in the front of our thoughts, for it might be the greatest true example of what the Christmas season is all about.

Note: To commemorate the centennial, the British grocery chain Sainsbury's produced a three-minute, forty-second ad portraying the Christmas Truce. Yes, it does show a Sainsbury's chocolate bar that a British soldier gives to a German soldier, but it is the shortest and most unobtrusive product placement I have ever seen. The commercial is superbly filmed, superbly acted, and arguably the best I've ever watched. You can view it by going here. 

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