Can you see Christmas as a breathtaking island in a vast sea of troubles? A place we are so desperate to reach after being storm-tossed for so long, we see its misty outline looming closer and feel a weight lifting from us. Once ashore, we celebrate and feel our energy and spirit grow and nourish us.
Then we sail away. Back to sea, back to the inevitability of hurricanes and typhoons, pirates and submarines. Back to our everyday, dog-eat-dog, material world. Why don’t we just stay on the island? Everything we need is there. But we leave, and in summer “Christmas in July” is just a sales gimmick.
Which is more remarkable – the fact that we sail into safe, spirit rebuilding harbors on this island every year, or the fact that we so quickly abandon them and sail away?
Christmas Eve of 1914 was a night of frost and light snow. The world was sinking into the stinking, muddy, futile human slaughterhouse of World War I that killed 14 million people and was thought of, then, as “the war to end all wars.”
Hundreds of men were dying every day as they struggled to win a few yards of earth that would be lost an hour, a day, a week or a month later. When they weren’t fighting they lived miserably in fetid trenches dug in a barren landscape of shell-churned mud and decomposing bodies.
Candles provided a little light, but carelessly used, they provided targets for enemy rifles.
German and British troops were often less than 50 yards apart, within earshot of each other, but unable to safely look and see who the men were that they could hear dying in that no-man’s land.
Germans back home had sent their boys small Christmas trees, and British men had been sent packages of cigarettes, chocolates and traditional Christmas plum puddings. From their trenches on one Belgian battlefield, German soldiers began to sing Christmas carols. The British followed with their own favorites. Then they sang the ones they all knew, especially “Silent Night,” together in a rough harmony of two languages.
The German soldiers had placed their little Christmas trees on the parapets atop their trenches, easy for the British to see. Then, as the carols rolled on, they attached lighted candles to the trees as decorations. The British did not fire. Some British soldiers crawled out on their bellies to see what the Germans were doing. German soldiers crawled out to meet them. The war stopped.
The men decided to share Christmas together, but they were surrounded by rotting corpses. They agreed to meet in the first daylight of Christmas Day, bury their dead, and then celebrate. At dawn British soldiers stood, and no one fired. Then Germans stood. Silence. Stillness.
Hands were shaken, chocolate, candies, cakes, cigars and bottles of beer were swapped, souvenirs were exchanged, stories told. It was then that an unidentified soldier suggested a soccer game. Scottish troops had a football, and a game started. The Germans won 3-2. Another game was played. And another. So strong was the feeling that the night came and went without gunfire and the day after Christmas Day the two sides met again and played some more football. Similar, smaller, Christmas celebrations happened up and down the front lines.
But the generals knew these men would now not be eager to kill each other. The celebrants on both sides were pulled back and replaced by fresh troops yet to lose their hatred of the enemy and ready to kill men they had never met. The war began again the next day.
A year later, soldiers in the trenches tried to recreate that 1914 Christmas. But orders had been issued to prevent it. In the four years of war after Christmas 1914 more than 10 million died, including most of the men who shared that Christmas Day.
In the end, which is more remarkable – the spontaneous cessation of killing to celebrate Christmas, or the resumption of the slaughter the next day? The generals and their henchmen are like the forces that hustle us back on to ships and sail us away from our Christmas island.
Can we be the people we are at Christmas the whole year through? Yes, we can. Maybe one day in spring or fall, when you are sailing down an interstate, you’ll look up and be surprised. There, ahead, is our island.