For many people, 2020 has been a truly awful year. However through mutual aid, charity, and the goodness of humans everywhere there have been miracles big and small that have shone like rays of sunlight through the black clouds of authoritarianism, public health emergencies, and the specter of continued war. It’s only fitting that as we end this year, we reflect on another holiday miracle from our past: The Christmas Armistice.
In the summer of 1914, the First World War began and the horrors of war once again fell upon Europe. The “soldiers”, mostly young civilian volunteers still in their teens, were swept up in patriotic notions of serving their country by fighting abroad. But the conditions of trench warfare were horrific, and the seemingly never-ending rain had turned much of their bases and the No Man’s Land between enemy encampments into little more than blood-soaked mud.
Many of the countries involved believed the war would be over by Christmas, but as the fighting raged on into the fall, those hopes were dashed. As the winter holidays approached, some of the figureheads involved attempted to boost morale and lessen the severity of the fighting. The recently appointed Pope Benedict XV pleaded with the leaders of the countries for a truce and an end to the bloodshed. The various heads of state were unmoved by these pleas, and refused to even consider a temporary truce through the holidays, but the German Emperor William II did find it within his heart to send Christmas trees to the Western Front.
Back in the trenches, a dialogue had begun between the two sides, particularly wherever Saxon troops faced off against the British. This dialogue wasn’t shared by the Russian troops on the eastern front, or by the French, but between the Germans and British it grew greatly as Christmas approached. Troops on both sides began to sing carols to each other in their native tongues, and by Christmas Eve the lower-ranking British officers in the trenches gave a “live and let live” order. That policy effectively meant the troops weren’t to fire unless first fired upon. It was used many times throughout the war by all sides. All of this led up to the famous ceasefire.
On the morning of December 25th, 1914, the German forces left their trenches in many parts of the Western front, arms raised to show they were unarmed and meant no ill will. They crossed into No Man’s Land to meet with the British soldiers that were just hours earlier their mortal enemies. The British troops could have used this as a strategic opportunity to slaughter the approaching enemy and secure additional territory. Thankfully, the innate goodwill of humanity prevailed, and instead of attacking they socialized, exchanged gifts, played soccer, helped bury each other’s dead, and shared a time of peace in the midst of one of the bloodiest wars in modern history.
The powerful leaders of each side wanted the fighting and terrors to continue. The generals did everything in their power to squash further fraternizing between the sides or any other attempts at truces as the war continued post Christmas. Ultimately, the men in the trenches weren’t as inhuman as their ‘leaders’, and they showed that we can find love and compassion even in a place marked by death. Their willingness to put aside their weapons in the spirit of goodwill towards each other shows the power we all have when faced with the evils of the world. We have the ability to stop the bloodshed, reflect, and spread grace and kindness, even in the midst of unspeakable horror.
The Christmas Armistice is a shining example of the world we can have, if only we are willing and brave.
The real miracle witnessed on that cold day so long ago was not the momentary peace between battling armies, but the courage those men found to make that peace a reality, despite their circumstances and their orders. The Christmas Armistice is a shining example of the world we can have, if only we are willing and brave. As this wretched year ends, we at the Vermin Supreme Institute hope that each and every one of us throughout the world can find inspiration in the actions of those men. Take time to step back, reflect, and spread loving kindness throughout our own communities.
May your 2021 be bright and full of peace.