December 2014

A ghost of Christmas Past

They called it the Great War, and proudly heading off to the front, most people believed that the soldiers would be home by Christmas. Nobody dreamed it would take four years and 16 million dead before World War I finally ended. By November 1914 both sides were fortified in a bloody stalemate in defensive trenches stretching from the Channel coast to the Swiss border.

Pope Benedict XV, on 7 December 1914, had begged for an official truce at Christmas between the warring sides. He asked “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang” This attempt was rebuffed by both sides. Orders were given that there should be no fraternization with the enemy.

Yet that first Christmas did contain moments that continues to be talked about today, one hundred years on. After yet another day of fighting, on Christmas Eve German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium. British soldiers saw their German counterparts light and lift candles into the air. The German soldiers were exposed by the light, their weapons nowhere to be seen, and from their trenches came the sound of a German Christmas carols. The British responded by singing carols of their own. The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were excursions across No Man's Land, where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. The artillery in the region fell silent. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently killed soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Some kind of joint services was held, some even playing football, though reports suggest that they kicked around a tin of bully beef as real footballs were scarce on the frontline.

Though many areas continued fighting more or less as usual, roughly 100,000 British and German troops were involved in unofficial cessations of fighting along the length of the Western Front.

The war restarted in those areas on the 26th December. The commanders on both sides were horrified that the troops would realise the enemy was not a monster and gave further, harsher orders and in later attempts at local truces there were Court Martials.

It is humbling to realise that even in the midst of such a horrendous war, there was a chance of peace - however short lived; a glimmer of hope -soon to be crushed; a whisper of angels singing – before the artillery bombardment restarted.

Jesus birth in Bethlehem was similar. Emmanuel (God with us) speaks of glimmers and whispers. The world still isn’t right, though thankfully we in Europe have experience almost 70 years of peace. There is still sickness and poverty, civil war and corruption. There remains misunderstanding and bigotry, hatred and violence. But also there persists the unformed and often unrecognisable perception that God is with us today. That there is an inbreaking hope that transforms the mundane into the mystical.

The end line from a verse of a carol that both sides sang 100 years ago states simply ‘Christ the redeemer is here’. During this Christmas season, can we all pray that Christ will be recognised as he continues to redeem the world, one glimpse, one whisper at a time.


December 2014