By Gary Palmer
Christmas holds different meanings for different people. For most of us, when you get past the stress of shopping and decorating, there is a sense of peace and joy and just plain childlike wonder at Christmas that transcends everything else. And nothing elicits those feelings quite so well as hearing Christmas hymns.
In fact, at least for a short while, a Christmas hymn stopped a war 95 years ago and restored a sense of humanity and common decency to the combatants on both sides. Known as the Christmas Truce of 1914, on Christmas Eve the stillness of a cold moonlit night was broken by the voices of German soldiers singing “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” from their trenches.
Across No Man’s Land, the British rewarded their German enemies’ rendition of “Silent Night” with enthusiastic applause and cheers, which the German carolers acknowledged with equally enthusiastic bows. The British then reciprocated by singing their own hymns.
Graham Williams of the London Rifle Brigade recalled, “They finished their carol and we thought that we ought to retaliate in some way, so we sang ‘The First Noel,’ and when we finished that they all began clapping; and they struck up another favorite of theirs, ‘O Tannenbaum’. And so it went on. First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words ‘Adeste Fideles’. And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
At one point in the line, a German soldier played Handel’s “Largo” on a violin. The simple words and music of Christmas hymns, although sung in foreign tongues, transformed enemies into brothers. British soldiers realized that the men across the battlefield were not the barbaric Huns depicted in British newspapers. The hymns had the same effect on the Germans. One German soldier reported hearing “… a Frenchman singing a Christmas carol with a marvelous tenor voice. Everyone lay still in the quiet of the night …. We all kept our guard, only our thoughts flew home to our wives and children.”
Along parts of the line, British soldiers snapped to alert thinking an attack was imminent when they saw unusual lights beginning to appear at portions of the German lines. To their delight, the Germans were placing Christmas trees adorned with candles on their parapets. “English soldiers, English soldiers,” shouted the German troops, “Happy Christmas! Where are your Christmas trees?” Amazingly, German soldiers left their trenches and approached the British trenches bearing gifts which the British heartily accepted, offering gifts of their own in exchange.
The unofficial truce also gave the combatants an opportunity to bury the bodies of dead comrades who lay in the mud of No Man’s Land. At one funeral, soldiers from both sides gathered to honor the fallen by reading the 23rd Psalm, once in English and once in German, followed by reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Those soldiers realized that none of them had any real enmity toward one another. In fact, some exchanged names and addresses and became life-long friends after the war. They were fighting each other because their government authorities ordered it so and they had to obey. As they laid their comrades to rest, heads bared in tribute, soldiers from both sides confessed to each other that they had no desire to fire another shot.
On Christmas morning, worship services were held above both lines of trenches. British and German chaplains intermingled to lead mixed congregations in prayer and the singing of hymns. Robert de Wilde, a Belgian artillery captain, joined an improvised mass held in a barn. “The soldiers were singing,” he remembered. “They were singing: ‘Minuit Chretiens’, ‘Adeste Fideles’, ‘Les anges de nos campagnes’, all the songs we used to sing when we were little.”
Just like the Christmas hymns the soldiers sang to each other, the songs we hear in our churches, our homes and on the radio should remind us of what Christmas is really about. It is about celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace, the coming of the One who can transcend the madness and mayhem of war as well as the fear and worry over a bad economy.
It is not the power of Christmas hymns that does this, it is the love God expressed through the gift of His Son Jesus Christ that can affect hearts, even the hearts of war-hardened enemies who on a cold Christmas Eve 95 years ago crossed their lines to wish each other a Happy Christmas.
Gary Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.