My Grandmother told me the same story every Christmas evening and I always asked the same question, “Why didn’t they just stop fighting forever?”
“Because it wasn’t up to them, they were just normal soldiers and they had to do what their emperors wanted them to do.”
“But they made peace for Christmas,” she said and then she told me the story.
It was Christmas Day, 1914. World War I had just started in July and after only five month the Western front was largely paralyzed; an end of the war was not in sight. The war would go on for 4 more long years, but nobody knew it then. The soldiers tried to adjust themselves to new and unfamiliar situations, so far from home.
At the end of 1914 they all could still see the remains of human civilization and culture on the front lines. Churches and villages were not completely shot to pieces and could still be recognized as such, unlike in the later years of the war.
People celebrated Christmas differently back then, it was a celebration of love and charity; it truly was was a Silent Night, a Holy Night.
Nobody really knows where it started, they assume it was somewhere near Ypres. German and British soldiers were hiding in the trenches, often only 50 yards away from each other. They were so close, they could call out to each other.
The soldiers were exhausted and frustrated; it was Christmas. A request for an official cease fire had been denied again. They all had the simple desire to celebrate Christmas without the fear of death. Every British soldier had received a package of the king, with cigarettes, tobacco, a box of chocolate, scones and a metal box with the engraved portrait of Princess Mary, the daughter of the King. King George wished them a Merry Christmas, “May God protect you and bring you home safe.” Over 350,000 of these Princess Mary boxes had been sent out for Christmas.
German soldiers had received packages from their families with warm clothes, food, alcohol, cigarettes and letters. Thousands of miniature Christmas trees were sent to the German front, which were lit on Christmas Evening.
No telling how it started, but many German and British troops sang Christmas carols to each other across the lines.
At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the allied lines across no-man’s-land. They were unarmed and they were calling out “Merry Christmas/Frohe Weihnachten” in their enemies’ native tongues. At first, the allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but after seeing the enemy unarmed they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with each other. The men exchanged presents of cigarettes, food and everything else they had on them. They sang carols and Christmas songs together. There was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer.
Some soldiers used this short-lived ceasefire for a more somber task: the retrieval of the bodies of fellow combatants who had fallen within the no-man’s land between the lines. They buried their comrades and they lit candles on the graves.
The war was on hold for one day. There was peace between the soldiers and they celebrate Christmas together. It was a Silent Night, a Holy Night/ eine stille Nacht, eine heilige Nacht.
“They should have just went home,” I said, because I just didn’t understand how you could be friends one day and kill each other the next.
“They weren’t allowed to do that, many of them had to face punishment for the unauthorized truce afterwards.”
Peace on Earth for just one night. Does it make sense?
Now being older I can understand it all a little bit better. Maybe the soldiers wanted to feel “normal” for just one day. They couldn’t be with the ones they loved, they couldn’t be with their families. They wanted to feel human again…just for one special night.
Enemies could shake hands and celebrate Christmas together. This is a true story, this really happened. It makes me think there is hope for this planet after all. Peace starts in our hearts.
Merry Christmas/Frohe Weihnachten to all of you.