Americans approach Christmas 2023 in a dark angry environment that has divided millions, even families and friends. Bethlehem, even Santa Claus and definitely “Silent Night” seem far away and somewhat artificial. Two full scale wars, massive death and destruction in Europe and the Middle East and violence and hate elsewhere have definitely dimmed our Christmas Spirit.
When I’ve been overseas and away from my family during Christmas, generally depressed, I remember an amazing event that happened over 100 years ago. It always reminds me that there is a special human quality that Christmas can activate, regardless of existing conditions and emotions.
There is no more dismal, discouraging personal situation than that found on December 24, 1914 in the cold, wet shallow, narrow trench occupied by an 18 year old British machine gunner, named Bruce Bairnsfather. He was hungry, freezing and scared. His unit, the 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment had been fighting the Germans for 3 months. They ate stale biscuits and tried to smoke cigarettes, too wet to light. And it was Christmas Eve.
About 10 PM, he heard loud voices coming from the German trenches across the large field that separated them. As he wrote after the war, he turned to the soldier next to him and asked: “Do you hear the Bochies kicking up that racket over there?” “ Yes, came the reply, they’ve been at it some time. They’re singing Christmas carols” Everyone in the trench stopped to listen.
Someone then started yelling at them in English, with a heavy German accent. He was asking them to come join them. With some suspicion, a British sergeant said, “you come halfway and I’ll come halfway”. Nervously, the Germans and the British, left their trenches and met in the barbed wire filled “No mans land”. What happened next is still remembered.
They had a spontaneous Christmas party. Handshakes all around, wine was found and a soccer game began Bairnsfather wrote years later that he couldn’t believe his eyes: “Here they were the common soldiers of the German Army and there was not an atom of hate on either side. “
There were other similar instances across the Western Front that day when small numbers of Germans, French, Belgian and British troops created their own peace on Christmas Eve. On December 26, 1914, they resumed killing each other.
WWI dragged on for four more years at a terrifying cost: 9.7 million military and 10 million civilians were killed. The wounded totaled some 21 million.
As grim as things seem to us this 2023 Christmas Season, they definitely don’t match what Bairnsfather and the other British and German soldiers were enduring on December 24, 1914.
Tom Timberman is an Army vet, lawyer, former senior Foreign Service officer, adjunct professor at GWU, and economic development team leader or foreign government advisor in war zones. He is the author of four books, lectures locally and at US and European universities. He and his wife are 24 year residents of Kent County.