On Christmas Day a century ago, at several locations along the Western Front of the World War I conflict, soldiers from both sides of the Great War emerged from trenches to meet in peace and camaraderie in no-man’s-land: the war-torn spaces between the opposing trenches. In the days leading up to Christmas, troops on both sides had sometimes joined in singing Christmas carols, the melodies rising to mix in the frigid air over the battlefield.
When Christmas Day dawned, instead of exchanging artillery barrages and bayonet charges, they traded handshakes, gifts, and holiday wishes. One location even enjoyed a friendly game of soccer.
Briefly, on a European battlefield where death and bitterness had reigned supreme, there was peace on earth and good will toward men. Though it was for only a day—a Christmas Day—hatred gave way to recognition of humanity’s brotherhood.
Some historians declare the story is misleading, because the so-called Christmas Truce was not a lasting one, nor did it occur everywhere along the front. The brutality of war soon resumed—and so, they say, the truce was no truce at all, and to believe it had any meaning was delusion. Stories of a Christmas Truce are false advertising about the power of Christmas. Bah, humbug! (I quote them here.)
Unfortunately, not all cantankerous “realists” are historians. For example, there are the professional “cultural critics” and “public intellectuals.” These groups constantly attack Christmas complaining about the commercialism associated with it.
By their estimates, Christmas shopping, Christmas glitz and glamor are horrible. But, by far, Christmas profits upon which some businesses live or die are the absolute worst! This commercialization is so pervasive, these critics claim, as to have completely overwhelmed whatever “spiritual” dimension might have resided in Christmas. Of course, the “public intellectuals” maintain the whole thing is really only a “social construct” anyway.
These complaints bring to mind the old adage about “throwing out the baby with the bath water.” Wait… is that baby they are trying to throw out is the Christ Child? No doubt, crass commercialization is very bad—but there’s a difference between commercialization and celebration.
I can’t say as I much enjoy the commercial pressures now associated with the Christmas season. Truth be told: they feel, to me, something like an assault, a campaign against my Christmas season sensibilities and faith. That faith tells me there’s a true spirit of Christmas, and it’s about the arrival of the Christ Child and the singing of angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men.”
With the advertising barrages of Christmas commercialization raining down all around me, my impulse is to dive for cover into an emotional trench. But you know—sometimes I hear Christmas carols emerging from the commercialization camps, and even from the camps of culture critics. And I feel the need to cross over into no-man’s land—cautiously—to shake a few hands, share a greeting of “Merry Christmas.” And I think that often, those who market Christmas can’t help but be affected by the real reason for the season. Because…there’s just something about the Christmas Sprit that breaks through, when it’s least expected, even when battle lines seem to have been already drawn.
Historians and critics may say the Christmas Day Truce was irrelevant to the outcome of World War I. But I disagree. True, the war continued on its terrible path. But the Truce taught us something about our common humanity—and it reveals the underlying power and potential of the Christmas season.
That thing we call the Christmas Spirit is more than just jovial cheer, and it’s certainly not embodied in commercialism. What is it then? What can draw men out of freezing trenches and into the potential line of fire, risking their lives to seek peace and brotherhood? Well, that could only be the True Spirit of Christmas—the Spirit of God, seeking to draw us to Himself.
May all the joys of the Prince of Peace belong to you and all your loved ones during this blessed season. Happy Christmas to all!
John D. Ragan is State Representative in Tennessee’s District 33.