In this season, no matter whether we have faith or are secular people, we are moved to think of things beyond ourselves. We think about miracles—a temple lamp burning far longer than it should have, a poor child who grew up to preach love and justice, a cease fire on Christmas Day during the bloodiest war of the last century.
One hundred years ago this week, in December of 1915, a second Christmas Day truce took place despite the discouragement of army brass on both sides of the conflict. The previous year had seen a day-long truce between the German and British soldiers in many places along the Western Front, with men singing carols together, exchanging presents, and playing football, as well as recovering and burying the bodies of dead friends. It took a week for rumors of this 1914 truce to reach the public. British newspapers reported on it more favorably than German and French sources did, but by the following year the Allied leadership had made it clear to the troops that fraternizing with the enemy was treason.
As Christmas Day approached in 1915, it was clear that many men wanted a truce once more, but this time they were forcefully ordered back by their commanding officers. Nevertheless, as Llewelyn Wyn Griffith writes in Up to Mametz and Beyond, soldiers insisted on calling “Merry Christmas Tommy” and “Merry Christmas Fritz” to each other across the trenches. “As soon as it became light,” he writes, “we saw hands and bottles being waved at us, with encouraging shouts that we could neither understand nor misunderstand. A drunken German stumbled over his parapet and advanced through the barbed wire, followed by several others, and in a few moments there was a rush of men from both sides, carrying tins of meat, biscuits, and other odd commodities for barter.”
It is important to remember this second truce, because it took the courage of many regular soldiers to enact it. It took some dedication to a larger principle for so many to defy their superiors to do something they knew in their hearts was the human thing to do. That rush of men on both sides was a decisive agreement between people who were supposed to be enemies about moral values and the meaning of life in a time of killing and hopelessness.
Despite the cold, the misery, and the threat of retaliation by superiors, soldiers in the trenches reached out to each other in fellowship again and again over the course of the war. It is as if each knew that their instinct to be kind, to suspend differences, and to kindle optimism across the political divide was the right way to be in that moment. In doing this, they left us stories we cannot misunderstand, about the essential generosity human beings are capable of showing each other even in the darkest times. So in this darkest time of the year, may each of us recognize the light in others that we also carry in ourselves, and find the courage to use it to carry the world forward.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.