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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas in the Trenches

Sojourners first published this Christmas reflection by editor Jim Wallis in 2002. With the ongoing conflicts raging during each passing year, it remains tragically relevant, particularly this year as we think about Afghanistan.

Silent Night , by Stanley Weintraub, is the story of Christmas Eve, 1914, on the World War I battlefield in Flanders, Belgium. As the German, British, and French troops facing each other were settling in for the night, a young German soldier began to sing “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” Others joined in. When they had finished, the British and French responded with other Christmas carols.

Eventually, the men from both sides left their trenches and met in the middle. They shook hands, exchanged gifts, and shared pictures of their families. Informal soccer games began in what had been “no-man’s-land.” And a joint service was held to bury the dead of both sides.
The generals, of course, were not pleased with these events. Men who have come to know each other’s names and seen each other’s families are much less likely to want to kill each other. War seems to require a nameless, faceless enemy.

So, following that magical night the men on both sides spent a few days simply firing aimlessly into the sky. Then the war was back in earnest and continued for three more bloody years. Yet the story of that Christmas Eve lingered – a night when the angels really did sing of peace on earth.

Jim Wallis concludes, "My prayer for the new year is for a nation and world where people can come out of their trenches and together sing their hopes for peace."

Folksinger John McCutcheon wrote a song about that night in Belgium, titled “Christmas in the Trenches,” from the viewpoint of a young British solder. Here are several poignant verses:

The next they sang was “Stille Nacht,” “Tis ‘Silent Night’,” says I. - And in two
tongues one song filled up that sky - “There’s someone coming towards us!” the
front line sentry cried - All sights were fixed on one lone figure coming from
their side - His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright - As
he bravely strode unarmed into the night.

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man’s land - With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand - We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well - And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave ‘em hell. - We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home - These sons and fathers far away from families of their own - Young Sanders played his squeeze box and they had a violin - This curious and unlikely band of men.

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more - With sad
farewells we each began to settle back to war - But the question haunted every
heart that lived that wondrous night - “Whose family have I fixed within my
sights?” - ‘Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung - The
frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung - For the walls
they’d kept between us to exact the work of war - Had been crumbled and were gone for evermore.

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