As I read over the article I was going to send out today, I realized it was too depressing. Instead of comparing the events of this past year to history, I decided I needed something more uplifting, like Christmas. For many, Christmas is the happiest time of the year. For Christians, it celebrates the birth of the baby Jesus when the Angels proclaimed to the shepherds, “Peace and good will towards men.”
If you are not Christian, it is still a time celebrated, as Fred said to his uncle Ebenezer Scrooge, “I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round…as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good.”
Yet Christmas in 2020 does not seem to fit. It is not a time of peace, as our nation is still tearing itself apart over the past election and COVID is making it impossible to gather with the ones we love to celebrate. People are struggling everywhere with sickness, loneliness, and finances. For many, it may not seem like Christmas.
As I pondered Christmases past, I thought of Christmas 1914, another year when families were separated. This is a story that most know, but maybe we could use a reminder. In 1914, the world was suddenly tearing apart as the major European nations chose sides and began slaughtering each other in ways never imagined. Before the war was over, the nations of England, France, Russia, Germany and Austria all lost around a million people each to this contest. It was not a necessary war. Neither side was the good or bad guys. Neither side had done a great wrong that needed stopping. It was more a family feud among ruling cousins who happened to be royalty.
The war quickly turned into a stalemate as Germany’s advance was halted at the Battle of the Marne that lasted from Sept. 6-12, costing the lives of almost 150,000 men. Any chance of a quick war was destroyed as both sides continued to engage throughout the rest of the year. To fight this war, both sides dug trenches across France. For the next five years, soldiers lived, worked, and fought in the trenches. Their conditions were miserable as they were crowded, muddy, lice- and rat-infested, disease- ridden, and vulnerable to artillery fire. As bad as the trenches were, leaving them was worse. Every so often, soldiers of one side were required to rush out of their trenches towards the enemy trenches only to be shot by machine gun fire. Living in a WWI trench was a living nightmare.
As December came, it was obvious that the war was not going to end, and families and soldiers had to prepare for a Christmas separated. The Pope got involved and asked for a Christmas truce from the fighting, but the high command on both sides did not agree. What happened was done completely spontaneously and done by the men themselves. On Christmas Eve in certain sectors the German soldiers put out Christmas trees, a German tradition, and began to sing Christmas carols. As most of the carols were the same on both sides and the trenches were only a couple of dozen feet apart, the British and French soldiers began to join in. The next morning without permission and at times against orders, the men from both trenches came out and met in no-man’s-land between the lines. They began to exchange small gifts like sweets, cigarettes, and alcohol. There was a spirit of kinship among these men who under different circumstances could have been friends. They were all in the same position of cogs in a fight among nobles. Eventually a football (soccer ball for us Yanks) was produced and the men spent the rest of the morning kicking it around, trying to forget what they had experienced over the past several months and what they would have to do the next day. At least for that one night and day, Christmas united them and brought them a bit of peace.
The Christmas truce only happened that one year. By Christmas 1915, the fighting had become even more brutal and the high command on both sides made sure it was not repeated. By the end of the year the truce had almost become a legend, the truth of which many started to doubt. Yet there are letters and pictures from both sides that showed that there was something magical about Christmas and, when left to their own devices, the troops felt the need for goodwill to all men
This Christmas season is different, and I know many are much worse off than I am. However, no matter the circumstances, I hope we can all take some inspiration from 1914 and allow Christmas in our hearts. If I may paraphrase Dickens, may it be said of us that we knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Everyone!
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.