When the First World War began, British women suffragists sent an open Christmas letter “To the Women of Germany and Austria” imploring peace as the first Christmas of the war approached. Pope Benedict XV, Dec. 7, 1914, begged for a truce, asking: “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” These requests were officially rebuffed.
Nevertheless, on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1914, an estimated 100,000 British, French and German troops near Ypres in Belgium along the Western Front, ceased fighting. The thunderous booming of artillery fell silent that night. German troops started decorating their trenches with Christmas trees and candles in their branches. They began singing “Stille Nacht” – “Silent Night.”
As this was one of the Christmas carols that soldiers on both sides knew, English, French and German troops all began to sing across the battle lines.
“Silent Night” was written a century earlier by a priest, Father Joseph Mohr, with the melody composed by Austrian headmaster Franz Xaver Gruber. The song originated on Dec. 24, 1818, at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria. The organ had broken for their Christmas eve service, so they quickly composed the song to be accompanied by guitar. “Silent Night” has been translated into over 44 languages.
Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight,
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing alleluia;
Christ the Savior, is born,
Christ the Savior, is born.
Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.
The 1914 unofficial Christmas Truce continued, as soldiers from both sides started shouting Christmas greetings to each other.
C. Ernest Furneaux of the British Rifle Brigade wrote in a letter to his parents: “About five o’clock on Christmas Eve the Germans started lighting up Christmas trees in their trenches. We took no notice of them until they began to sing. Then we began to cheer them and talk to one another as we are only about 80 yards apart. So by the light of their searchlight our officers went across halfway and their officers came to meet them. They shook hands and conversed for a while. It was agreed that we should have a day off and they would fire the first shot to start again. So from five o’clock on Christmas Eve until ten o’clock this morning (December 26th) neither side has fired, only walked about. Some of the Germans came across to us and we shook hands and had some chocolate and cigars from them.”
Venturing across “No Man’s Land,” they recovered bodies and held joint burial services.
Lance-Corporal Imlah of the Gordon Highlanders wrote in a letter to his father: “Our padre then gave a short service, one of the items in which was Psalm XXIII. Thereafter, a German soldier, a divinity student I believe, interpreted the service to the German party. I could not understand what he was saying but it was beautiful to listen to him. The service over, we were soon fraternizing with the Germans just as if they were old friends.”
The Hertfordshire Mercury published a letter, January 9, 1915, from British rifleman C. H. Brazier: “All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us. … On Christmas day we all got out of the trenches and walked about with the Germans, who when asked if they were fed up with the war said ‘yes, rather.’ They all believed that London had been captured, and that German sentries were outside Buckingham Palace. They are evidently told a lot of rot. We gave them some of our newspapers to convince them.”
Soldiers even played soccer together. The Germans won 3-2.
Bruce Bairnsfather, who served during the First World War, wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. … The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”
In “Christmas Truce” by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, they recorded: “There was general handshaking; the dead were buried; cigars, cigarettes and newspapers were exchanged and a general celebration ensued. Then the Frenchmen suggested that we shoot no longer, promised that they themselves would not resume hostilities in that event.”
When General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, heard what was happening, he was irate and issued strict orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops. Someone else who was opposed to the truce was a young corporal in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry named Adolf Hitler.
World War I went on for four years, and cost the lives of 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians – one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.
After World War I ended, President Woodrow Wilson gave an appeal, Dec. 8, 1918, for support of the American Red Cross: “One year ago, twenty-two million Americans, by enrolling as members of the Red Cross at Christmas time, sent to the men who were fighting our battles overseas a stimulating message of cheer and goodwill. … Now, by God’s grace, the Red Cross Christmas message of 1918 is to be a message of peace as well as a message of good-will.”
On Dec. 25, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson wrote to General Pershing and the American troops stationed on the battle-front in France: “While it is hard far away from home, confidentially, to bid you a Merry Christmas, I can, I think, confidentially, promise you a Happy New Year, and I can from the bottom of my heart say, God bless you.”
Subsequent U.S. presidents continued the tradition of acknowledging Christmas. On Dece. 23, 1921, President Warren G. Harding stated of the U.S. delegation drawing up the Four-Powers Treaty, that he: “… is more than gratified over their efforts, because they are working out the greatest contribution to peace and goodwill which has ever marked the Christmas time in all the Christian era.”
President Calvin Coolidge wrote: “Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.”
On Dec. 22, 1931, President Herbert Hoover stated: “I have received requests from federal employees … that they should be given two periods of holidays … Christmas and … New Year’s Day. … While I see little objection to the day following Christmas in order that federal employees may have an opportunity to join their families … I do not feel that we should extend the holidays at New Year’s.”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated in his Christmas Message, Dec. 24, 1942: “It is significant that Christmas Day our plants and factories will be stilled. That is not true of the other holidays. On all other holidays work goes on – gladly – for the winning of the war. So Christmas becomes the only holiday in all the year. I like to think that this is so because Christmas is a holy day. May all it stands for live and grow throughout the years.”
On Dec. 24, 1946, President Harry S. Truman stated: “We shall find strength and courage at this Christmas time. … He whose birth we celebrate tonight was the world’s greatest teacher. He said: ‘Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.’ Through all the centuries since He spoke, history has vindicated His teaching. In this great country of ours has been demonstrated the fundamental unity of Christianity and democracy. …”
President Truman continued: “… We have our unique national heritage because of a common aspiration to be free and because of our purpose to achieve for ourselves and for our children the good things of life which the Christ declared He came to give to all mankind. … The progress we have made gives hope that in the coming year we shall reach our goal … the benediction of the Master: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.’ … I say to all my countrymen: Merry Christmas! … and may God bless you all!”
In 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower stated: “Through the ages men have felt the uplift of the spirit of Christmas. We commemorate the birth of the Christ Child by … giving expression to our gratitude for the great things that His coming has brought about in the world.”
President John F. Kennedy stated Dec. 17, 1962: “Christmas … is the most sacred and hopeful day in our civilization.”
On Dec. 18, 1963, President Lyndon Johnson stated at a News Conference:
Q. Mr. President, can you tell us about your Christmas plans yet?
The President: If God is willing and Mrs. Johnson is willing, I plan to fly to my home either the night of the 22d, after I light the Christmas tree. … I hope to spend Christmas Eve with my family. … I don’t want to keep my secrets from you people – I might even go hunting.
President Richard Nixon stated Jan. 20, 1969: “As the Apollo astronauts flew over the moon’s gray surface on Christmas Eve, they spoke to us the beauty of earth – and in that voice so clear across the lunar distance, we heard them invoke God’s blessing on its goodness.”
President Gerald Ford remarked lighting of the national community Christmas tree, Dec. 17, 1974: “The glow of Christmas, however, should come from a power source which we will never run short of, our abiding faith and our love of God.”
President Jimmy Carter commented in 1977: “Christmas has a special meaning for those of us who are Christians, those of us who believe in Christ, those of us who know that almost 2,000 years ago, the Son of Peace was born.”
President Ronald Reagan stated in his Christmas Address, Dec. 20, 1983: “Sometimes, in the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations we forget the true meaning of Christmas … the birth of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ. … During this glorious festival let us renew our determination to follow His example.”
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