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We live in a time when there is some pressure to remove Christmas symbols from public areas, despite the history and culture of the USA, just in case it might offend someone. The story below is a sobering reminder of the value placed on Christmas by troops in World War I who were fighting under horrible conditions.

In Flanders, Belgium at one point of the War of 1914-1918, the front-lines were very close: only about 75 yards separated them (that’s less than the length of a football field). The British, French and Belgium forces (the Allies) were dug in to one long trench and the Germans into another (the trenches were miles and miles long). When it rained, water was up to their knees in the trenches. The ground between the trenches was called No-Mans Land, where the dead soldiers lay and where rats fed on the bodies. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost.

The opposing troops called and taunted each other, as some of the Germans had worked in Britain before the war and knew a little English. Two weeks before Christmas 1914, The Germans put on a concert and they told the Allies that if they stopped shooting they would be able to listen in. Later the Germans engaged an opera singer who sang Silent Night. Troops on both sides clapped. The French responded with their own artist who sang The First Noel. Later the Germans lit candles on small Christmas trees, and the Allied soldiers crawled through the mud of No-Mans Land to see what the lights were. German soldiers crawled out in response, and both sides began to make impromptu plans for Christmas.

Picture of the trenches in 1914 (from the book Silent Night).

On Christmas day, they buried the dead in No-Mans Land. The men swapped with enemy soldiers little boxes of Christmas gifts they had received from home. Two captains shared German beer and British plum pudding. Later the troops played soccer against each other.

A book written about this is called “Silent Night: the Story of the World War I Christmas Truce” by Stanley Weintraub (Free press, 2001), and there are apparently at least two movies: “Oh What a Lovely War” (1969 adaptation), and “Joyeux Noel” (2005).

In reflection, one commentator said that most ordinary folks yearn for greater peace: in families, with camaraderie, and an absence of hatred. They realize that at bottom, they are mostly all the same in this desire. Peace is harder to maintain than war is.

Perhaps the troops in Flanders, who must have faced death on a daily basis, would urge us to remember the true meaning of Christmas, and appreciate the fact that here in the free world we can celebrate our tradition in freedom.

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae (poem by Canadian physician who fought in Flanders)
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The Gray Nomad.
Probing the practice of Christian believers….

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John, chapter 16).

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5 Responses to Christmas: a moving story from World War I

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  2. Anne-Françoise |

    I’ll be in the African savanna to live this Xmas. I’ll share with the Africans the peace of Christmas, and try to spread the African light over the whole world. The Africans have a very strong faith in God that is a daily lesson for us.

    • That will be an experience….Christmas in the African Savanna. I’m curious about the lessons the Africans can teach us about faith in God.

      • Van den Bulke Anne-Françoise |

        I have a beginning of an answer about the African faith in God. A few weeks ago before I came back to France for rotation, I was called during the night because there was a crash between a bus and an elephant. When we arrived the elephant was dead as well as 14 persons, plus about 40 severely injured people. On the day after, speaking with a young black woman who was from the village of the victims, she was obviously very sad about this accident, but she concluded by telling me “it was predestined by God”. I didn’t totally agree with her because this accident could have been avoided by the bus traveling at a lower speed, but she accepted the accident because she was convinced that it was predestined by God!

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