Every year, the story recirculates. Many of us hear, again, about the famous Christmas truce during World War I. How on Christmas Eve, 1914, along the Western Front, British and German soldiers sang carols to one another from opposing trenches and, the next morning, ventured out into no man’s land to exchange holiday wishes and small gifts. A few even played an impromptu game of soccer. They took time to remove the bodies of their dead that had been rotting in the field, and the following day the fighting began anew.
The soldiers called this the “Live and Let Live” system. A few small ceasefires were attempted from time to time thereafter. Their commanding officers were outraged by these horrible breaches of military conduct and — remembering that humiliating Christmas when their men refused to act like enemies — promptly put a stop to further breakouts of peace. Always and everywhere, the war must go on.
They took time to remove the bodies of their dead that had been rotting in the field, and the following day the fighting began anew.
A young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment was especially indignant. “Such a thing should not happen in wartime.” He demanded of his comrades at arms, “Have you no German sense of honor?” His name was Adolf Hitler, and he later made certain that German honor was defended, cost be damned.
But some of those soldiers never forgot the peace that might have been. In 1930, a British veteran of the Great War said, “I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.”
The good thing about Christmas truces is that, indeed, they don’t need to happen only at Christmas. As sappy as it sounds when people say this, some ember of the season’s spirit really can be rekindled, if not all year long, at least from time to time.
Of late, I’ve found myself wishing for a truce of some sort. Or at any rate, a temporary ceasefire. In the political realm, Americans are definitely embroiled in a civil war. It’s more of a cold war than a hot one — thank the Lord. But it can be brutal, and it is hardly without casualties.
Those casualties are usually lost friendships and distance between family members. They may include failed romances or even divorce. Perhaps more frequently, we suffer shattered relations with people in our lives we consider less important to us. Our alienation from them nonetheless leaves us with the sense that the world is a lonely and hostile place.
In the political realm, Americans are definitely embroiled in a civil war. It can be brutal, and it is hardly without casualties.
Little ceasefires, here and there, may help us to recognize the dynamics behind our conflicts. Not only may we come to see how good it is to be at peace, but we might start questioning why those conflicts happen. What is driving them? Who is really goading us to fight? And are those fights absolutely necessary?
Not only do those determined to rule over us keep us fighting one another, but the problems they cause are the reasons we fight in the first place. If they would just go away and leave us alone, most of the issues that divide us would become manageable without hostility. Most conflicts happen because one collection of people aggresses against another. Usually they aggress, not because they need to, but because they are told to.
What if we just said no? What if we exchanged gifts, sang songs, played ball, and buried our dead instead? Suppose — as the old slogan goes — they gave a war and nobody came?
Christmas is the season when we think about such things. When we sing about “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” These days, the powers-that-be even set us to squabbling about that. They tell us that it should be “goodwill toward gender-neutral human persons.” And that we shouldn’t be singing about Christmas at all.
We might start questioning why these conflicts happen. Who is really goading us to fight? And are those fights absolutely necessary?
What if we said “Bah, humbug” to the humbugs? Real people — minding their own business and living their own lives — don’t worry about the things they’re told should bother us. If we were left to ourselves, how many shots would we fire?
A good rule of thumb, in dealing with politically contentious relatives this holiday season, might be to ask ourselves (as we take a deep breath and count to ten), “Is this something we need to fight over, or merely something we’re told that we must?” I know that actually, a lot of people do this. What if we did it all year round? Anything not worth fighting about with relatives at Christmas is probably no more worth fighting about with neighbors, coworkers, or friends in the middle of July.
Little truces can stretch into bigger ones, if we have the will to stick with them. We may, in time, decide that those who tell us we must fight with one another are just as wrong about a lot of the other things they tell us. And that those who use their authority to sow unnecessary discord should have no authority at all. What if they tried to rule over us and we refused to let them?
A Christmas truce might lead to the understanding that when we pursue truth, and really become acquainted with it, we need not resort to force because we can trust in peaceful persuasion. Force only needs to be used by those who don’t trust that what they believe in is true. The truth, in any matter over which human beings might fight, will never lead us into warfare — either foreign or domestic. This holiday is based upon the promise — age-old but ever new — that when we know the truth, it will set us free.