One hundred years ago Europe was embroiled in World War I. The United States wouldn’t join the fray until 1917, but the fight was in full swing on battlefields in Belgium and France. Germany had invaded her neighbors and the Allies were doing their best to stop them.
There is no such thing as a “good” war. Wars may be fought for good reasons, but the death and destruction they bring is terrible. World War I is known for being especially awful as the two opposing armies had reached a stalemate dug into trenches along the battle lines. Men died of illness and disease, along with bullets and bombs. The area between the opposing trenches was strewn with the injured and the dead.
On Christmas Eve, something miraculous happened. Soldiers from both sides decided peace was more important than war, at least for a few days. Germans placed lighted trees on top of their trenches and Allied soldiers joined them. Stanley Weintraub says in his book “Silent Night” that the soldiers shouted to each other “You no shoot, we no shoot”. The two groups came together to sing Christmas carols, shake hands and share a smoke. They agreed to stop fighting through Christmas Day so they could meet again and bury their dead. They helped each other dig graves, held memorials, traded uniform buttons and played soccer.
A few days later, the generals ordered the men to continue the fight or face military discipline.
I’d never heard that story until I read about it recently in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic Magazine. For me it serves as a reminder that no matter how far apart two sides are in any conflict, there is always the chance that people can come together. Those men knew at some point they would have to go back to trying to kill each other. Many knew the men they shared a cigarette with would not see the end of the war. But they chose peace for a day or two. They shared the real Christmas spirit on a battlefield. For the ones who made it home, from both sides, I have to imagine they were forever changed by the experience.
Many times we see our personal problems as divisions that nothing can overcome. I disagree. Thinking back on Christmas Eve 1914 tells me there is no better time than Christmas Eve 2014 to reach out a hand and look for peace.