I once received a Christmas card, many years ago now, with a picture of Father Christmas on the front. But a closer examination showed this image to be a likeness of Karl Marx. There he was, complete with a bright red coat and hood, trimmed with the usual white fur. The caption on the card read, “Even Marxists are nice at Christmas” I suppose you could say that it doesn’t say very much for Marxists if they can only be nice at Christmas. And in any case, niceness doesn’t quite do it when you are looking for a revolution of the heart and the world. There is only a Christ-like love that is capable of that.
Nevertheless, it seems that as Christmas approaches nearly everybody does become a bit nicer. In spite of all the cynicism and disillusionment, now and again, we can glimpse if only fleetingly, amidst the festive preparations, a yearning for that love expressed in the desire for peace on earth and goodwill.
The jingles in the shops, the media and the shopping malls resound (mostly and not very tastefully) with the same message. And what do we do? We bemoan the secular tide of commercialism that seems to have overcome this Christian festivity. But if we think about it another way, we can see, in spite of the cash register queues, the credit card transactions, the online purchases and the apparent superficial exuberance of it all, at the heart of this, in that swarming mass of humanity in the supermarkets and the shopping centres, at the heart of it all, are real people with an earnest and sincere desire to celebrate Christmas with the people that they love. They really do want to bring the magic of Christmas into the lives of their children, not only to give them gifts and sweets but also something more valuable; the gift of Christmas itself, a happy event that can be stored in the treasure chest of memory. Indeed, for those of us who are just a little older, Christmas gives us the opportunity to cast our minds back to Christmases past; spent in the company of loved ones no longer with us today.
Great memories as we know, can become great history. For the past one hundred and six years a Christmas has not gone by in which the events of December 1914 were forgotten. In the words of a BBC Special Report (1998) “It is perhaps the best and most heartening story of modern times”
This true story was of a time during the First World War when the British, French and German Armies faced each other across a frozen landscape of shell craters, of mud, shattered trees, wrecked buildings and corpses. Millions of men faced each other in the trenches. Millions died in this war and those who survived suffered terrible hardships and horrific experiences.
A French infantry lieutenant, Alfred Jobbaire, wrote in his diary shortly before he was killed: “Humanity is mad! It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impression. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!
The battlefields of Belgium and France were indeed a living hell but on 24 December 1914, it seemed as though a miracle had taken place. As the artillery bombardment ended, the guns became silent and the killing stopped. From their positions the British troops in Ypres Belgium, could see that the German troops had begun to decorate the area around their trenches with Christmas trees and candles and through the clear bitter cold night of Christmas Eve the British soldiers heard the Germans singing Christmas carols and in particular they could hear them softly singing Stille Nacht or Silent Night. It wasn’t long before the British joined in because in some areas the opposing trenches were less than thirty yards apart.
Soon they were shouting to each other across the trenches. Then, little dots of red, the burning cigarettes they were smoking became visible to each other as unarmed German and British soldiers courageously climbed out of their trenches to meet each other, to share Christmas greetings and to exchange gifts of whisky, jam, cigars, and chocolate.
All sorts of souvenirs were exchanged including names and addresses, family photographs were shown and a desire to go home and to end the war was a sentiment that was widely shared and expressed by both sides.
The next day, Christmas Day, unarmed German and British soldiers joined together to search for their dead comrades. And in at least one burial service the German and British dead were buried alongside each other.
Along the twenty-seven-mile British line there was a time of peace, celebration, and joy as enemies became friends and understood each other through the bond of their own humanity. Football matches as well as more casual kick-arounds took place. And it must be emphasised that this was not a small-scale event, thousands of soldiers took part, ordinary privates, NCOs and officers, much to the frustration of some the German and British high command.
The Christmas truce ended on Boxing Day, but in some areas, it continued well into the New Year. The First World War continued until 11 November 1918. But the powers that be ensured that the spirit of Christmas and the possibility of peace on Earth would be snuffed out until then. For the remainder of the war artillery bombardments remained constant over the Christmas period, and soldiers were constantly transferred from one area to another ensuring that solidarity and familiarity would not be able to flourish and allow the joy and peace of Christmas to shine in the darkness of war.
Without Christmas or any similar great religious festival at this time of the year we would miss a tremendous opportunity to connect with the loving depths of our own humanity. And there would have certainly been no Christmas 1914 to shine like a beacon over the passing years and generations. A beacon to remind us of our manifest destiny, to bring us home and to remind us of who we really are.
We who have been brought up and educated in a culture so heavily influenced by Christianity know that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the arrival of the Christ child into the world. If we let go a little and let our imaginations leap into one cold dark starlit night in December, can we not believe just for a moment, that not too far away, this special child, this wonderful gift from God lies cradled in a mother’s arms? Is this not a scene of such joy and tranquillity? as we gaze upon mother and child enveloped in that radiant light of pure love. A light that illuminates the whole scene as the rich and powerful, the poor and mean kneel together and worship in such humility.
The Christ child is born and is born in our hearts, the hope of the world, the light of our lives. From the darkness, we come face to face with the Christ Child, into the light of a Holy presence where all our strivings, our greed and anger our hatreds, our small mindedness, prejudice, jealousies and fears have been supplanted by an apparition of such purity that our very hearts are smitten as we resonate with a divine love with the wonder and beauty of it all. In this moment we know who we really are and we know that this child is every child the universal child, the child in every person we meet. As we meet his gaze through the radiance of his presence, we feel his vulnerability and a powerful sense of innocent, trusting love and we are deeply touched. We are deeply touched because we are not observers, but have become one with him, deeply touched, we are lifted on the wings of angels.
When we are far away from home in the cold solitude of despair of pain and self-pity, we have only to remember the light that shines in the darkness a light transcendent and immanent, a light deep within ourselves, the power of love to transform ourselves and the world.
May the humility of the shepherds,
the faith of the wise men,
the joy of the angels
and the peace of the Christ Child
be God’s gift to all people this,Christmas and always