The Christmas Truce and the History of Christmas in Wartime

Christmas Truce image by A. C. Michael

This Christmas will mark the 100th anniversary of an extraordinary event in history. On Christmas Day in 1914, as many as 100,000 British and German soldiers on opposite sides of the trenches in World War I lay down their weapons for a day to socialize and celebrate the holiday together. According to eyewitnesses, it was all a very spontaneous thing. Pvt. Albert Moren reported hearing the German soldiers encamped within earshot singing “Silent Night”; Rifleman Graham Williams spotted makeshift Christmas trees and candles. As the two sides witnessed each others’ attempts to have a nice holiday in spite of the circumstances of war, they started to sympathize with each other. Eventually, the German Capt. Josef Sewald nervously climbed out of his trench and made his way to the British, shouting that he wanted a truce. A British officer approached, cautiously, and shook his hand.

What happened next was… well, this recent ad from a British store chain tells the story:

The Christmas Truce, as it became known, was eventually reported to the press at the end of the year. The news enraged the senior commanders and leaders of the British and German militaries. Fraternization with the enemy was treason, they reminded their troops. Many interpreted these acts as an attempt to undermine the war effort. The order went out: no more truces or exchanges with the enemy; Christmas Day was to be a day of artillery barrages and raids. Those who disobeyed were court-martialled. In spite of this, soldiers on both sides continued to risk arrest with some unofficial co-operation with the enemy throughout the war in a system of “live and let live” when the officers weren’t looking, helping to reduce casualties in many areas.

It makes sense that something like the Christmas Truce would occur in 1914. When World War I began, both sides went to the battlefield expecting a swift victory so they could be home by Christmas. Obviously, that didn’t happen. On top of that, the outbreak of war had been something of a confusing mess, with no clear motive for going to war except to support one’s allies and old ideas about honor, and there were many people opposed to the war on both sides. In other words, the soldiers on the ground had nothing to gain from fighting.

Contrast that with other wartime Christmases through history, and you find that the norm is to just keep fighting through Christmas.

  • When William the Conqueror was crowned king of England on Christmas Day, the soldiers standing guard mistook the nobles’ cheers for a cry of alarm. They rushed into the ceremony, swords drawn, frightening and confusing the attendees, and started burning nearby houses to smoke out the rebels they thought were hiding there. It took all day for order to be restored.
  • George Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware to stage a surprise attack at the Battle of Trenton was on Christmas night.
Pictured: Christmas

Pictured: Christmas

Still, the spirit of the season somehow manages to make it through even in the harshness of war. During the Blitz in 1940, as Londoners hid in the subways to escape German bombs raining from above, there was an unexpected break in the bombing during Christmastime. The next German attack wouldn’t come until December 27th.

During the Battle of the Bulge four years later, a German mother and her son were staying in a hunting cabin for the winter, when three American soldiers arrived, one of them wounded. She took them in. Not long after, four German soldiers arrived, but rather than arrest her for harboring the enemy, they agreed to set their weapons outside so long as the Americans did the same. The woman and her son prepared a Christmas dinner that they shared with all the soldiers, and in the morning all the soldiers parted ways to their respective front lines.

In 1952, Air Force pilots in Korea airdropped “bombs” of chocolate bars for an isolated island village. The village children always waved at the American planes flying by, so they wanted to give them a big Christmas present. They saved up chocolate bars for a whole year, and eventually gave the villagers 100 pounds of the stuff! Unknown to the pilots, this would be the beginning of an Air Force tradition, “Operation Christmas Drop”, which continues to this day, delivering humanitarian aid in remote areas around the world.

Today, with the U.S. military pulling out of Afghanistan, one need not look far to see videos of soldiers surprising their families by returning home for Christmas. It’s hard not to tear up when watching one of those videos!

It seems like every year we are inundated with Christmas specials on TV that all have the same basic lesson on “the true meaning of Christmas” in between Christmas commercials for this or that sale and this or that gadget we simply have to buy for our loved ones. It is easy to forget that so many of us take Christmas for granted, when there are many people around the world, past and present, for whom Christmas is anything but merry. Yet somehow, acts of kindness can shine through even in the worst of times.

With that in mind, let’s appreciate our blessings this Christmas and show some kindness to one another.