The following is a true story originally read by famous news reporter Walter Cronkite in 2003 with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. At the bottom of this post you will find the video in case you wish to follow along.
Silent Night, Holy Night
Almost 100 years ago, during the Christmas of 1914, the nations of Europe were at war. It was “The Great War”… World War One.
A new century brought a new kind of warfare. Field commanders quickly realized that digging in was the only way to survive the sweep of machine gun fire.
The German army had marched across Belgium before being stopped at Flanders Field. Some 60 yards away, British, French and Belgium troops languished in trenches infested with rats and lice. Pelted with freezing rain and shrapnel… temperatures dropped and disease took hold. The war was only 4-months old… but each side was losing thousands a day – both to bullets and to that silent, common enemy… influenza.
Between the opposing trenches was an area about the width of a football field…known as “No Man’s Land.” Littered with barbed wire and corpses, it was a sobering reminder of what the future might bring. By wars end, more than 10 million would be lost.
Not surprisingly… given the circumstances… most of the soldiers were religious, and many were Christian. On Sundays, communion was passed in the trenches on both sides… often to the sound of church bells ringing in nearby villages. The occasional hymn was sung and youthful voices were heard across enemy lines.
By December, the war slowed and hopes for a resolution were fading away.
Soldiers were contemplating their desperate situation… as nights grew long and hearts yearned for peace.
December 23rd. A group of German soldiers quietly moved to the ruins of a bombed-out monastery. There, they held their first Christmas service. Later that night, a few Christmas trees –Tannenbaums, as they were called – began to appear along the German fortifications—their tiny candles flickering in the night. Across the way, British solders took an interest in those lights as they sang together the carols of their youth. Word spread and heads peeked cautiously over sandbags at the now, thousands of Tannenbaums, glowing like Christmas stars.
Two British officers ventured over to the German lines and — against orders — arranged a Christmas truce. But the negotiation was a mere formality by then.
Up and down the trenches, men from both sides had already begun crossing the lines to join in the celebration.
Lt. Sir Edward Hulse assaulted the enemy with music. In a letter to his mother he wrote, “We’re going to give the enemy every conceivable song… from carols to Tipperary.”
The Germans responded with a Christmas concert of their own. It was not long before the cold air rang with everything from “Good King Wenceslaus” to Auld Lang Syne. For the next 2 days, those tidings continued to spring from the hearts of common men who shared the common bond of Christmas.
Further down the line, a German violinist stood atop his parapet framed against the skeletons of bare trees and shattered fortifications…. his cold fingers playing Handle’s “Largo.” A British war correspondence reported that shortly after, soldiers heard a clear voice singing the beloved Christmas Carole “O Holy Night” — the singer, Victor Granier of the Paris Opera. The night watch must have lifted their eyes toward the heavens as they heard his plaintive call.
Whatever the sprit of Christmas had been before that hour, it was now — above all– the spirit of hope and of peace.
Christmas day dawned over the muddy fields and both sides cautiously picked their way through the barbed wire. Side by side, they buried their dead. A German officer known only as “Thomas” gave Lt. Hulse a Christmas gift, a Victoria Cross and a letter that had belonged to an English captain. Lt Hulse responded by giving the German officer his silk scarf. One German retrieved a photograph of himself in uniform and asked his former enemies to post it to his sister in Liverpool. Men who had shot at each other only days before gathered in a sacred service for their fallen soldiers. Prayers were offered and the 23rd psalm was read.
19-year-old Arthur Pelham Burn who hoped to study for the ministry after the war, remembered that the Germans formed up on one side and the English on the other… the officers standing in front… every head bared. “Yes, I think it is a sight,” he said, “one will never see again.”
As the Christmas of 1914 drew to a close, soldiers who had sung together, played together and prayed together returned to their trenches. They must have felt reluctant to let the common ground between them become “No Man’s Land” again.
But as the darkness fell around them, a lone voice floated across the few yards of earth on which they had stood together. In the true spirit of Christmas, one voice, then another, joined in. Soon the whole world seemed to be singing. And for a brief moment the sound of peace was a carol every soul knew by heart – “Silent Night.”
And that’s the way it was almost 100 years ago. And that’s the way it can be this season and beyond… as we embrace the message of that Silent, Holy Night.
This is the season of forgiving. We all have differences. Though we should never let our differences come between us, this is a time to put them in the past. The core and foundational spirit of Christmas is found in the very root of the word — Christ. It is He who brings such a spirit where differences are forgotten, and peace reigns.