All Quiet on Christmas Day
December 24, 2009 11:15 PM   Subscribe

When Pope Benedict XV called for a cease fire over the Christian holiday of Christmas the high command on both sides of no man's land called it "impossible". But the men in the icy muck and mire of Flanders decided for themselves what was possible, what was not possible. The future held millions of dead and wounded but the season motivated the British (along with some French and Belgians) and the Germans to shake off the traditional definitions of enemies and allies.

The World War I Christmas Truce is no legend. It is no myth. The Christmas Truce is not a lie your teacher told you. It really happened. And for a few days the horrors of war were forgotten and fellowship ruled the day. The truce stands as a testament to the absurdities of war. A soldier shakes hands with the men he was trying to kill only hours before. A spontaneous soccer match breaks out (maybe) in the icy, bloodied no man's land between the trenches. Details are sometimes fuzzy but we know it happened.

The 1914 Christmas Truce has inspired interpretations aplenty. Strange dramas, music, film, musicals, documentaries, more film, did I mention music? Or music?

I have always thought that no matter what you believe about higher powers, religion, God, or Christmas, the effect of the holiday cannot be denied. I've always believed the truce demonstrated that even in the bleakest of circumstances, when all seems lost, humanity's spirit and intrinsic goodwill cannot be beaten back. Anyway, Happy Holiday season mefites! (Prev-i-ou-sly)
posted by IvoShandor (36 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
"I have always thought that no matter what you believe about higher powers, religion, God, or Christmas, the effect of the holiday cannot be denied."

This is a bit disingenuous. I mean, this post starts out talking about the Pope. It is because of the Christian religion (currently involved with the traditions making up Christmas) that this could even occur. If there were no higher powers/religion/etc. involved, the holiday wouldn't have had the same "effect." See: Arbor Day, etc.
posted by autoclavicle at 11:26 PM on December 24, 2009


You are free to call me disingenuous. I'm not. I am not a Christian and I believe that the effect of the holiday cannot be denied. Sorry if you think I am being insincere. Merry Christmas to you anyway.
posted by IvoShandor at 11:31 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Saturnalia all night long!
posted by Burhanistan at 11:38 PM on December 24, 2009


the effect of the holiday cannot be denied

I'd say that a Christmas truce wouldn't make much sense without the surrounding cultural context (primarily, at that time, religious). Otherwise, it's just another day in December. Not to say that there isn't some sort of "spirit of humanity," but that spirit has reasons for focusing itself on certain times of the year, and those reasons are usually because there's some sort of ideological emphasis on those times.
Doesn't need to be religious. Imagine, for example, that there had been a truce on July 4th during the American Civil War. But saying that the spirit of humanity would lead American soldiers to call off the fighting on that particular day as opposed to any other is...well, since you don't like the term disingenuous, I'll just call it interesting.
Anyway, Merry Christmas to all - Christian, Jewish, Moslem or Atheist or what have you.
posted by AdamCSnider at 11:49 PM on December 24, 2009


I've always found this story remarkable. I often wonder if it could take place in any of our modern wars (though we'd need a suitable holiday - obviously Christmas wouldn't work in Afghanistan).

(I'd do this text small if I could... but IvoShandor, I think your post would have been stronger without the last paragraph- that lesson is clear in your links, and the editorialising just leads to derails.)
posted by twirlypen at 12:00 AM on December 25, 2009


Argh. I must say something. I never said that the fact that it was Christmas had nothing to do with it. I was trying to get at the power of that celebration to bring out goodwill in everyone, Christian or not (as I have a hard time believing that all the truce participants were Christian). Either way, I don't want that paragraph to derail the thread, so mods, feel free to remove it as well as this comment.
posted by IvoShandor at 12:27 AM on December 25, 2009


Favorited for John McDermott, particularly that line about Silent Night being sung across No Man's Land, different languages, same melody.

The effect of that strange unity cannot be denied.
posted by philip-random at 12:29 AM on December 25, 2009


I commend to everyone this Stanley Weintraub book in which the whole amazing story is told.
posted by Mike D at 4:38 AM on December 25, 2009


And Another film.
posted by surrendering monkey at 5:12 AM on December 25, 2009


It's a nice story, but I don't think is says much for Christianity. It happened because the vast majority of the belligerents in Europe were Christians who shared a tradition of taking a short break at that time; those same Christian soldiers started the war and got right back at it after a brief breather. A soldier shakes hands with the men he was trying to kill only hours before, and then a soldier kills the men with whom he was shaking hands only hours before, mainly Christians killing Christians.

And it happened in December 1914, just a few months into the war, when people were still looking and hoping for a way to end it quickly. Except for a couple of smaller incidents, it didn't happen in 1915, 1916, and 1917. With the same pope presumably making the same calls for peace, and with the same god at the helm, Christians kept on shooting Christians right through Christmas, Easter, and every other Christian holiday on the calendar.

But, yes, it's a nice story.
posted by pracowity at 5:22 AM on December 25, 2009 [8 favorites]


And then they went right back at it. What does that say about humanity's spirit and intrinsic good will? The Chistmas trench truce story makes me sad. It's like the story of a man who killed men, then stopped, then started again. As a matter of fact, it's exactly like that. The pause is more horrible, not less.

I deny the effect of the holiday. That the trench story happened for a few men out of millions and only once is evidence. But my main objection, the point where your good story turned to bullying, is your claim the holidays can't be denied. Yay for Christmas and all that, but let the story stand on its own.
posted by eccnineten at 5:34 AM on December 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


Thank IvoShandor for this. Will get through the links today.

I wonder if this song as well (Snoopy's Christmas) was inspired by these events (or did you mention this already and I missed it)?

Anyways, Merry Christmas to you too.
Peace, Love, Joy and Happiness to all men and women of good will!
posted by bitteroldman at 6:01 AM on December 25, 2009


It happened because the vast majority of the belligerents in Europe were Christians who shared a tradition of taking a short break at that time; those same Christian soldiers started the war and got right back at it after a brief breather.

I can't disagree with that but the men were pawns. They did what they were told. The only thing this story shows is that for ordinary soldiers this war was utterly meaningless and that they had a great deal more in common with each other than with the royalty and upper classes who started it and sustained it. Christmas had nothing to do with it except giving the men the opportunity to stop shooting each other without being shot (by their officers) themselves.
posted by bobbyelliott at 6:21 AM on December 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'm pretty sure if any of you were soldiers killing other soldiers the chance to stop for a day or more would be welcomed and the institutions that enable it would be appreciated, I'm not religious but I don't really understand the desire to dismiss Christianity's place in making this happen. If one day some American secession means soldiers take a break from fighting the second Civil War to watch the Super Bowl for a day or two I would also thank this institution despite never having watched an American football match in my life.
posted by doobiedoo at 6:47 AM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


http://www.flickr.com/photos/daveexmachina/4176264557/
posted by Legomancer at 6:51 AM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


The only thing this story shows is that for ordinary soldiers this war was utterly meaningless and that they had a great deal more in common with each other than with the royalty and upper classes who started it and sustained it.

That applies to most wars in history.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:16 AM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think one of the most powerful images to come out of this for me is the one of both sides singing "Silent Night" in their respective languages--a carol that both sides had in common, but that also has the cadence of a childhood lullaby.

I was a member of a group that caroled at our local (urban, diverse, multilingual) hospital a couple days ago. We sang on 10 different wings and tried to vary the repertoire for our own selfish reasons (singing "Hark the Herald Angels" over and over can get old for some serious singers), but always deferred to patient requests, if one ventured to their doorway or called out from their bed.

Guess what we ended up singing at least 5 times? (And always, always, with patients and staff singing along.)
posted by availablelight at 7:19 AM on December 25, 2009


I'm with eccnineten in finding the Christmas Truce depressing, because of the big fat zero that the participants managed to learn from it.

And I would like to point out that there is nothing particularly Christian about people in northern latitudes having a big celebration around the time of the winter solstice; humans have been doing that for tens of thousands of years and Christians only took up the habit because some people they wanted to convert wouldn't give up the festival. That is why we celebrate it with symbols like evergreen trees and jolly gift-giving elves, which have nilch to do with Christianity.
posted by localroger at 7:31 AM on December 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


I was trying to get at the power of that celebration to bring out goodwill in everyone, Christian or not (as I have a hard time believing that all the truce participants were Christian).

Fair enough. Sorry for the derail.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:40 AM on December 25, 2009


I'm with eccnineten in finding the Christmas Truce depressing, because of the big fat zero that the participants managed to learn from it.

I can't help but feel a profound naivety in statement's such as these. The story of humanity (maybe from the beginning, certainly over the past ten thousand years or so), if it has any meaning and/or linearity at all, has something to do with our moving (evolving?) from barbarism to ... something better that we don't even seem to have words for (but maybe music).

The fact that the species is still functioning (given the means of mass destruction we've had at our disposal for over half a century now) and some of us are even discussing this incident gives me something akin to hope.

Thanks for the post, IvoShandor.
posted by philip-random at 9:46 AM on December 25, 2009


philip-random, the last ten thousand years represent less than ten percent of humanity's existence and there is no rational reason to think it has any meaning or linearity at all. Evolution (which does not work on such short timeframes anyway) does not represent any kind of striving for advancement or perfection or beauty. It represents a quest for strategies that work, even if those strategies are ugly kludges.

The Sumerians, the Greek city-states, the Romans, and the Aztecs would all have been just as justified in thinking of themselves as being on the forefront of human development toward glory as we do; they all had the most advanced agriculture ever, the most advanced math ever, the most advanced writing ever, the largest geographical reach ever, and they all failed.

And this is the Christmas Truce writ large; it is the story of Camelot, a forgotten glory we cannot recover. We may have had a moment of clarity, an island of peace and reason, but in the end we always end up poking at one another with sticks. And when particularly wise men such as Lao-Tze, Jesus of Nazareth, the Buddha, and Gandhi craft the most persuasive arguments as to the error of our warlike ways, we find ways to twist their words into excuses for more war.

Had the soldiers concluded the Christmas Truce by walking home en masse I'd be impressed. But the lesson of the Christmas Truce is that by Jan 1 they were all trying to murder one another again, despite having experienced firsthand the wrongness of that. The lesson is that we can sometimes be persuaded to act civilized, but we can always be persuaded to act barbaric.

As for our continued existence after 60 years of atomic technology, sometimes you just get lucky.
posted by localroger at 10:57 AM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Philip-Random: life has the linearity of time (it goes from then to now to later) but it has no meaning. That's why I think I'm lucky, not destined, to live in a time and place where I don't have to physically defend myself every single day. There are entire nations that are not experiencing war right now, which is all the miracle this atheist needs on a Christmas day. No particular reason to believe things won't go south day after tomorrow, but for now I thank my lucky stars. I've got hope enough to choke a camel, but no sense that life has a meaning or destiny.
posted by eccnineten at 11:56 AM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Garrison Keillor on Silent Night: "I discovered that 'Silent Night' has been cleverly rewritten to make it more about silence and night and not so much about God [...] Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that's their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite 'Silent Night.' If you don't believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn 'Silent Night' and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write 'Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we'll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah?' No, we didn't."

I sure wish I could leave Christmas songs alone. The thing is they are played in every public space I walk in for nearly a month and then I hear them through the walls when I get home. Please, Mr. Keillor, please help me leave your Christmas songs alone. Atheists like me, and the Jews, and the Unitarians, we would like nothing more than to never bother you again. You helped us grant you this boone when you retired in 1987. Won't you help us again have a silent night?
posted by eccnineten at 12:04 PM on December 25, 2009


but it has no meaning. [life that is]

This is a belief. Please don't state it as fact.

I sure wish I could leave Christmas songs alone. The thing is they are played in every public space I walk in for nearly a month and then I hear them through the walls when I get home.

I hear you, and would suggest that it is not just your right but your responsibility to protest, ridicule, satirize, LAUGH AT any cultural effluent that gets in your face be it Santa Claus, Jesus H Christ, Britney Spears, Tiger Woods' car, FOX news, you name it ...

Then maybe we might just get a little peace on earth.
posted by philip-random at 2:22 PM on December 25, 2009


but it has no meaning. [life that is]

This is a belief. Please don't state it as fact.


No, it's a fact. There is no evidence, whatsoever, that life has any meaning and, in the absence of evidence, we must conclude the null hypothesis (life has no meaning) to be true. It's called the scientific method.
posted by bobbyelliott at 2:37 PM on December 25, 2009


It's called the scientific method.

How to think about science. I believe espisode 21 is most applicable to your argument.
posted by Chuckles at 2:55 PM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Had the soldiers concluded the Christmas Truce by walking home en masse I'd be impressed. But the lesson of the Christmas Truce is that by Jan 1 they were all trying to murder one another again, despite having experienced firsthand the wrongness of that. The lesson is that we can sometimes be persuaded to act civilized, but we can always be persuaded to act barbaric.

A little more faith in humanity might be justified, I think: The Live and let Live system

It's worth remembering that experienced career soldiers were a minority in the vast armies of WW1: the majority were civilian volunteers and conscripts. A great many of these citizen soldiers were shamed, threatened or forced into uniform; a great many more responded to manipulative media appeals to 'patriotism' and 'manhood'. In reality most had no desire to kill the men in the opposite ditch; they reacted as you might hope decent human beings trapped in an insanity would, and sought to avoid causing additional harm. I agree that saying 'Bugger this' and heading home en masse would have been the sensible response, but the rulers knew how to play the crowd: the judicious granting of laurels or profit or authority to the right groups of sociopaths will usually ensure that the masses are dragged along for the ride.

Tony Ashworth's study of the 'Live and Let Live' system is a fascinating read if you can get hold of a copy. He suggests that the prevailing attitude of many combatants was that they should co-exist as peacefully as possible until the lunatics in charge of the asylum ran out of steam. He notes that patrol activity and weapons fire would often be 'ritualised' to avoid causing harm to the enemy (which might provoke a response). Reports were frequently ‘cooked’ by platoon officers to convince Brigade statisticians that aggressive fighting was being kept up, when in fact the sector was quite peaceful. Some brigadiers began to insist that samples of German wire were brought back by patrols to prove that they had actually crossed no man’s land and not just stayed close to their own trench, and Ashworth cites several examples of platoon officers keeping a captured coil of German barbed wire in their dugout so they could send a piece to Brigade whenever asked for proof of patrol efficiency.

Compare Haig’s diary entry for January 14th, 1916:
‘At the present time, I think our action should take the form of “Winter sports” or raids continued into the Spring’.

with the attitude of a man in the front line like Charles Sorley, who saw patrols and raids not as a sport but as murderously futile:

‘We refrain from interfering with Brother Bosche seventy yards away, as long as he is kind to us... All patrols – English and German – are much averse to the death or glory principle; so, on running up against one another… both pretend that they are Levites and the other is a Good Samaritan – and pass by on the other side, no word spoken. For either side to bomb the other would be a useless violation of the unwritten laws that govern the relations of combatants permanently within a hundred yards of each other’.
(Charles Sorley, 7/Suffolk Regiment, The Letters of Charles Sorley, Cambridge, The University Press, 1919).

When you can press a rifle into a man's hands, transport him to a dehumanising battlefield, give him carte blanche to murder at will, bombard him with jingoistic rhetoric, even threaten to have him shot if he refuses your orders, and it transpires that, generally, he still won't kill his fellow man - perhaps there is hope.
posted by boosh at 3:09 PM on December 25, 2009 [7 favorites]


There is no evidence, whatsoever, that life has any meaning and, in the absence of evidence, we must conclude the null hypothesis (life has no meaning) to be true. It's called the scientific method.

Well, my Chem-11 teacher was a creep (to a Machiavellian and, it turns out, criminal degree). Thus was my consciousness deflected down the Arts corridor where, among other things, you find the Law arguing that you can't prove a negative. Which is a good legal argument, just like the scientific method offers a damned good scientific argument.

Myself, I choose to believe that actual reality (ie: the sum total of everything including everything we don't know yet), is far, bigger, weirder, more paradoxical than any particular discipline/philosophy/filter. Thank God and/or oblivion for that.
posted by philip-random at 3:24 PM on December 25, 2009


boosh, the example you give is a fine thing, but I'd credit it more to good gamesmanship on the part of the privates of both sides than to any forward-thinking tendencies; the most genocidal whackjob leaders of the Cold War came to a nearly identical arrangement on a much larger scale.

While our ability to use reason to come to such arrangements is an interesting progression from the usual state of affairs in nature, it's still unusual enough to be noteworthy and with the weapons we have now we only have to screw it up once to end the game.
posted by localroger at 3:53 PM on December 25, 2009


I've never understood why this is supposed to be all heartwarming and stuff. A small sample of a people choose some random holiday to stop shooting at each other, then they continue shooting at each other. This is some triumph of the human spirit?
posted by signal at 6:12 PM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks for posting about "Live and Let Live". The anthropology of the first world war is fascinating.

I'm really surprised to learn of the Pope's role in the Christmas Truce. Popular British accounts (and by extension Canadian and American accounts) of First World War history don't seem to mention that very often.
posted by Chuckles at 8:42 PM on December 25, 2009


I haven't read all the links yet, but the ones I did read were great. I know soldiers' letters were heavily edited at the front, and probably some of those 'letters' printed in local newspapers were fake, but they can't all be, and having access to them now is delightful.

I just finished the wonderful Goodbye to All That (thanks to a mefite recommendation) and Graves describes numerous smaller, less organized moments of cooperation between the Germans and the British. It seems that after certain battles one side would hold their fire so the other could go out to collect their wounded and dead. (At other times the victors would walk among the wounded, shooting them point blank.) He relates other stories where the two sides would mark the time to a song with gunfire into the air - each side doing part of the tune.

(And incidentally, Graves seemed to think, as at least one of the links above stated, that the Germans were generally the more generous side in these mini armistices.)

Now, with the emphasis on drones and robots, it seems easier to justify the insanity and inhumanity of war because we can keep our enemies at a safe distance. I find it inconceivable to imagine going through the motions of war when the 'enemy' is only a few yards away, stuck in a trench just like one's own. The mental knots one would have to tie oneself in to justify participating in what was so clearly a suicidal and nonsensical exercise - well I just can't imagine it. But then people talk themselves into so many terrible and crazy circumstances. Surely the Christmas truce can be some sort of metaphor both for our terrifying potential to consent to the most terrible games with human lives, and our potential to refuse to participate in those games too.
posted by serazin at 9:02 AM on December 27, 2009


philip-random: The claim 'life has no meaning' is both an opinion and a fact. And what a fine fact it is! It would be horrible to have a meaning, as briefly explained here. But I could be mistaken. If you know what the meaning of all living things that have ever lived is, please let me know.

You are incorrect (if I'm reading you correctly) that a negative cannot be proven. Here is a negative statement: "There are no men who are married and bachelors at the same time and in the same way." The statement is a negative, and the law of non-contradiction is proof (proof positive) that the statement is true. This is a proven negative.
posted by eccnineten at 12:25 PM on December 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I never claimed life had meaning; merely implied that it was as much a belief to claim that it doesn't as to claim that it does ... which then triggered the null hypothesis (scientific argument) which I countered with the "very difficult to prove a negative" (legal argument) ... and so on. Words are tricky. So for the record, a simple "truth" I lean toward:

Faith = belief that there is some kind of meaning to it all, usually connected to some kind of god. Atheism = belief that this is bullshit.
posted by philip-random at 1:29 PM on December 28, 2009


Atheism = realizing that assignation of any kind of meaning to "it all" necessarily will include self-interest and that self interest is best served by claiming that one is representative of an all-knowing, all-seeing god who controls what happens after one is dead and even while one is alive. Which is bullshit.
posted by telstar at 8:11 PM on December 30, 2009


Yes, there is absolutely no grey area in between. Thanks for clearing up everything for us.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:12 PM on December 30, 2009


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