On the day after Christmas the work of Christmas begins.
If yesterday we welcomed the Prince of Peace, then today we must live under his most gracious rule. Christmas has the power to break down the walls that separate us and unite us as in our common humanity. That power was never more remarkably demonstrated than on the December battlefields of the First World War. The new technology of the Industrial Revolution was enabling humans to engage in large-scale killing. Larger artillery cannons could pound enemy positions and obliterate the ground, while new automatic weapons could mow down waves of advancing infantry. The only thing poor foot soldiers could do was to dig a trench, hunker down and hope.
Yet Christmas came in 1914 to the men in the trenches of that awful conflict. Along the Western Front, British and German soldiers began brightening their trenches with candles and decorating them with any greens they could find. On Christmas Eve the Brits heard the Germans singing “Stille Nacht” and recognized their own “Silent Night.” They shouted out Christmas greetings and eventually one and then another dared to climb out of their trenches and walk into No Man’s Land. They sang carols together and buried their dead together. They shared chocolate, cigarettes and Brandy. They played night soccer under the light of flares. The generals had not authorized this truce, the young men in the trenches had simply responded to the spirit of Christmas. They stepped out into No Man’s Land and met the enemy as fellow human beings.
John McCutheon turned this miraculous night into song. It reminds me that the power of Christmas is greater than the power of hate and violence,but we must receive one power and renounce the other. This is the enduring work of Christmas.
Christmas in the Trenches
by John McCutcheon
My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool,
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and toFlanders, to Germany to here.
I fought for King and country I love dear.
‘Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung.
Our families back in England were toasting us that day,
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.
I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground,
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound.
Says I, “Now listen up, me boys!” each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
“He’s singing bloody well, you know!” my partner says to me,
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony.
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more,
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.
As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent,
“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” struck up some lads from Kent.
The next they sang was “Stille Nacht.” “Tis ‘Silent Night’,” says I,
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.
“There’s someone coming toward us!” the front line sentry cried,
All sights were fixed on one long figure trudging from their side.
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright,
As he bravely strode unarmed into the night.
Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man’s Land,
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand.
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well,
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave ’em hell.
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home,
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own.
Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin,
This curious and unlikely band of men.
Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more,
With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war.
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night,
“Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”
‘Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung.
For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war,
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore.
My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell,
Each Christmas come since World War I, I’ve learned its lessons well.
That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame.
And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.