Christmas in the trenches

By Jim Wallis
23 Dec 2009

Silent Night, by Stanley Weintraub, is the story of Christmas Eve, 1914, on the World War I battlefield in Flanders. As the German, British, and French troops facing each other were settling in for the night, a young German soldier began to sing “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” Others joined in. When they had finished, the British and French responded with other Christmas carols.

Eventually, the men from both sides left their trenches and met in the middle. They shook hands, exchanged gifts, and shared pictures of their families. Informal soccer games began in what had been “no-man’s-land.” And a joint service was held to bury the dead of both sides.

The generals, of course, were not pleased with these events. Men who have come to know each other’s names and seen each other’s families are much less likely to want to kill each other. War seems to require a nameless, faceless enemy.

So, following that magical night the men on both sides spent a few days simply firing aimlessly into the sky. Then the war was back in earnest and continued for three more bloody years. Yet the story of that Christmas Eve lingered – a night when the angels really did sing of peace on earth.

Folksinger John McCutcheon wrote a song about that night in Belgium, titled “Christmas in the Trenches,” from the viewpoint of a young British solder. Here are several poignant verses:

The next they sang was “Stille Nacht,” “Tis ‘Silent Night’,” says I.
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky
“There’s someone coming towards us!” the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one lone figure coming from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright
As he bravely strode unarmed into the night.

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man’s land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave ‘em hell.
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own
Young Sanders played his squeeze box and they had a violin
This curious and unlikely band of men.

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night
“Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”
‘Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone for evermore.

My prayer for the new year is for a nation and world where people can come out of their trenches and together sing their hopes for peace. We here at Sojourners will carry on that mission, and we invite you to continue on the journey with us.

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(c) Jim Wallis is president and CEO of Sojourners in Washington DC, and a leading voice in the progressive evangelical Christian movement in the USA. www.sojo.net Reproduced with grateful thanks.

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NB. Our friends at Sojourners (www.sojo.net) first published this reflection by Jim Wallis in 2002. It has since become their 'Christmas tradition'. In 2009 they say: "With the ongoing conflicts raging during each passing year, it remains tragically relevant, particularly this year as we think about Afghanistan."

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