Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas in the Trenches

It's a sad fact that down through the ages the celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace has been overshadowed by war, and men and boys (and now women as well) have spent that day trying to kill other men and boys. Despite the fact that Jesus advocated peace and advised his followers:
"You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

"You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." (Matthew 5:38-45)
Unfortunately humankind seems to find war necessary, and developed the theory of a just war in order to satisfy their need despite claiming to be followers of the man who gave that sermon above. And so men kill each other on a day which is supposed to be given over to peace.

But every now and then the spirit of the season overtakes the smoke and flames of war and something beautiful happens. At the very beginning of World War I just such an event occurred, on Christmas Eve of 1914. On that night German, British, and French forces facing each other across "No Man's Land" from their trenches, began singing Christmas carols, and joined in when carols shared between the cultures came up. Eventually the troops came out of the trenches and met in No Man's Land, sharing food, drink, and cigarettes, said Christmas Mass together, and collected the dead in No Man's Land and gave them a proper burial. Even the artillery fell silent, perhaps in recognition of the feeling sweeping that night. The High Command on both sides of the conflict were furious, and the British commanders actually ordered increased artillery bombardment on Christmas Eve for the remainder of the war.

But for one night in the midst of one of the most devastating conflicts in history the combatants laid down their arms and celebrated together. And that night has been celebrated ever since, on stage, in the movies, and in song. I want to share one of those movies and one of those songs with you.

In 2005 French film-maker Christian Carion wrote and directed Joyeux Noël, a film about this wondrous night. It focuses on French and Scottish forces facing German forces, how they came to leave the safety of the trenches to celebrate Christmas together in No Mans Land, how it affected individuals involved, and its consequences for some of those individuals. I first came across it two years ago, and I've made it a "tradition" to watch it on Christmas Eve every year since. You can read about the movie here and here. At the moment I just want to show you what the movie looks and sounds like. The first video is the trailer for the movie, and the second is a collection of the musical scenes. I highly recommend finding a copy to watch!

Probably the most famous song to come out of the Christmas Truce of 1914 is John McCutcheon's "Christmas in the Trenches", telling the story of that night through the experience of a British soldier, one Francis Tollever from Liverpool. I chose this video version especially because John prefaces the song with the story of the elderly German former soldiers who came to one of his concerts to listen in sheer joy; they'd been there that night but nobody would believe their tale, so it was good to hear someone verify their stories.

The most telling part of the song is the last verse, where Francis as an old man recalls the lessons learned that night:
"The ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame,
And on each end of the rifle we're the same."
Amen! Someone, I forget who, said that if the old men who declared war were the ones who actually had to fight it, we'd have world peace overnight. This song and the movie Joyeux Noël pretty much make that point! Enjoy! And have a Merry Christmas!

Photo & text © 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. Well Said Roy.Have A Peaceful Christmas.Regards From tony.

  2. Very beautiful post! May you have a very Merry Christmas!

  3. ...beautiful, Roy--and thoughtful. Thanks for the clips. I hope you have a wonderful day tomorrow with family and friends. (Loved the photos in your previous post...)

  4. thanks for this gift - a very thoughtful and informative post. definitely have to check out the movie.

    peace! good yule to you!!

  5. Amazing wasn't it. Shame they just didn't give up all together. Shows what pawns these poor boys were. I hope you had a lovely blizzard free day.