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Back in 2002, I found myself in tough spot. I was light on cash, had a large number of people I wanted to send Christmas cards to, and worse...had forgotten my address book at WIU. I had a few addresses with me, but not all of them. Realizing I had everyone's email address, I opted to send them a Christmas email instead. I'd planned on doing this anyway when earlier in the year I'd heard a story that had made me stop to smile at the goodness it evoked.
It involved a high school football game in Ohio between Waverly and Northwest. Weeks before the game, Coach Dewitt from Waverly had agreed weeks earlier that if the score wasn't close he would allow a kid from Northwest named Jake Porter take the kneel-down. Jake has chromosomal fragile-X syndrome which left him physically and mentally disabled and thus he couldn't so much as be tackled without risk of serious harm. With Waverly winning 42-0 and seconds left in the game, Northwest's coach reminded Dewitt of that promise. Dewitt refused to let the kid take the kneel-down. Instead, he said, "He's going to score a touchdown." When the ball was hiked and handed to Jake and he tried to take the kneel-down, the Waverly line parted and all the players from both teams as well as the officials began pointing toward the endzone. After a few false starts, he finally started down the field, both teams and the officials running along behind him continually pointing to the endzone until he trudged 50 yards to score ending the game 42-6. It was a nice reminder that a small act to impact greatly a life; a choice to think of another rather than oneself and the ability of others to embrace such an act.
The next year I wrote of my grandmother's hospitalization and surgery and my own feelings going through that time. At her age, the surgery was considered risky and there were no guarantees that she'd be able to survive it. The last time I'd been in the hospital to see a grandparent had been eleven years earlier when my grandfather lay dying and the even the most minute parallels between the two experiences made me uneasy. There were times when I wasn't sure that story would have a happy ending but in time for Christmas it did. It was nevertheless a scary and difficult time and yet I'm happy to report three years later that she's still doing fine.
For Christmas 2004, I recollected on my own experiences that year having survived a near-fatal auto accident and blood clot. Such an incident inspires one to think about their life and the importance of remembering the other people in their life who mean so much to us. It also reminds us of the fragility of life and how in a second everything can change or worse end. I'm happy to say that while health problems unrelated to the accident have plagued me since 2004, I'm still alive and still fortunate and grateful for friends and family whom I care about and who care about me.
Last year I looked at the anniversaries of the deaths, and more importantly the lives, of several individuals who made an impact on the world. We remember each of them for what they did in their life and I asked everyone to consider what they've done in their own lives to make the world a better place. A year has come and gone and did we do our best to make some positive impact on the world regardless of how it affected us? I like to hope each and every one of you did and if you didn't, well, the year's not over yet!
And so we're back at that time of year again when I pass along my holiday story and some thoughts on it that I feel are worth sharing. For this year, I thought I'd take another story from history, one which defies the setting it took place in and offers reassurance in the hope of peace the possibility of humanity in the midst of inhumane circumstances. So, without further ado, let me recollect to you this year's story...
In 1914 the nations of Europe had been perched upon the brink of war. Sabers drawn and cannons ready, they had prepared for war and when the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28 of that year, the incident quickly escalated into the Great War: World War I. Men in Britain, France, Germany, and all over Europe flocked to their nation's flag to patriotically serve in this glorious conflict. After initial military advances however, the glamour of the war began to wane as both sides quickly sank into a stalemate. The Allies and the Central Powers dug in on the Western Front and the gruesome experience of trench warfare began. The artillery fire, the shooting and charges across the desolate area between the opposing lines known as No Man's Land, the death, the disease, the suffering that began in 1914 would continue for four bitter hard years. It would become known as the Great War because never before had mankind employed the resources, technology, and manpower in such strengths for the purpose of war. It would later be called the "War to end all Wars" because it was believed the horrible experience of the conflict would be a deterrent against future folly. Of course, we know that was not the case and even today we have vivid proof that there are some for whom learning from the lessons of the past appears too difficult or unnattractive a concept. But in 1914, the realities of war were already beginning to take their toll. Muddy, earthen trenches, the stink of the unburied dead, daily sniping from the opposing side. And yet, amidst the conflict, there was an incident that defied the horror.
On November 7, 1914 Pope Benedict XV called for a temporary cease of hostilities to celebrate the holiday however all but Germany refused to accept. As the war dragged on, soldiers settled into the uneasy boredom of daily life in the trenches. Occassionally they communicated with one another across the lines, singing or jeering at one another with almost friendliness. Separated by less than 200 feet and surrounded still by terrain as-yet not completly ravaged by the war, soldiers were able to still think of the men on the other side as men and not soldiers. Commanders on both sides discouraged such behavior and even prohibited any fraternization or friendliness with the opposing side, including unofficial "we won't fire if you won't" style agreements.
With the holiday approaching, families on both sides of the war began to send their loved ones gifts and reminders of the comforts of home. The British and Germans tended to do this the most as the French and Belgians were fighting the war in their own territory, not occupying trenches in another country. Many of the German troops began to erect Christmas trees in the trenches and the lights of the candles upon them could be seen from the British lines.
December 24 arrived. It was a day clear of rain and on a dozens of points across the front something curious began to happen. The British troops who could already see the lights of the German trees began to hear the Germans singing. Occassionally they would shout back across No Man's Land to them or join them in the singing. "Happy Christmas to you, Englishman" would be met with "And to you, Fritz!" and so forth. The British sang various Christmas carols such as "Oh Noel" and in most accounts the Germans favored "O Tannenbaum". One soldier recalled that after singing various songs, they both joined in singing the same: "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" in Latin. In a couple instances, the British and Germans actually sent a few men to meet with one another. The commanding officers of both sides had orders not to do this, but allowed it anyway feeling it gave their men a chance to strengthen their lines or improve morale. Whatever their reasons, a curious event was about to take place.
When Christmas day actually arrived the fraternization between the two armies continued. What began as singing carols across the lines turned into more. It had developed into a truly unofficial truce. The singing and shouting continued and escalated. In some places the two armies exchanged gifts, sending care packages from home over to one another. One soldier recalled offering his German counterpart a cigar. "Virginian?" asked the German who then added "I only smoke Turkish!" to the ensuing laughter from both groups. Free from gunfire, soldiers from both sides headed out into No Man's Land to greet one another, exchange presents, and take the time to bury the dead who had been otherwise unreachable.
Helping one another bury the dead brought many groups out into No Man's Land to talk to one another. Without the cease-fire, reaching some of the corpes would have been difficult and the solemn duty of burying them properly impossible. In a few cases, the troops from both sides organized joint burial ceremonies. These instances led to talks in which the men who only days earlier had been firing at one another shared stories and pictures of loved ones at home and in some cases realized they had so much more in common than they imagined. One German told a British soldier that he'd lived in England prior to the War and a girl back home...in Surrey.
A few accounts also cite impromptu soccer matches between troops from both sides. More so "kickarounds" than organized games at least one kept score. The Germans won that match 3-2.
The goodwill lasted all Christmas day and continued after the 25th. In many places the unofficial truce continued for days and in a few instances carried on all the way into January. Eventually however, the truce had to come to an end. As one soldier recalled, the British raised a flag saying "Merry Christmas" and the Germans responded with one reading "Thank you" and then both sides ducked back down into their trenches. The war had resumed.
Similar truces were attempted in 1915 and throughout the war but were far less successful and nowhere near as widespread as in the winter of 1914. The war had carried on for a year more and the fierce fighting had taken a grisly toll on the minds of the men on both sides. The Christmas Truce of 1914 was hardly the first time such a thing had occured. Similar experiences could be found thoughout the wars of the 19th century including Crimea and the American Civil War. But never had such a large-scale cessation of hostilities occured in a war of this magnitude and sadly never would it again. The Christmas Truce of 1914 slipped into legend, often exagerrated by soldiers recalling the events in hindsight many years later. Cynics have simply called it a chance for both sides to strengthen their lines and yet there's something inescapable about the strangeness of it all. It was a remnant of an earlier age, the Victorian mindset of civility even in the midst of the barbarism of war. The rest of that Great War would burn away that mindset in the crucible of the years that followed. And yet, perhaps it offers us a lesson nevertheless.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 wasn't an organized event. It wasn't a grand strategy on the parts of commanding officers. It was an expression of the reality that war and politics and all the other trappings of "patriotism" in "civilization" often try so hard to extinguish. It was a case of men from two opposing "sides" realizing a common bond, finding common ground, and celebrating their similiarities and differences rather than hating one another for them. The Christmas Truce is a reminder to us that even amidst the horror of war, it is possible for humanity to surface and express itself. If only the same could occur again. But if peace and goodwill could find itself into a war nearly a century ago, can we in our daily lives not find it within ourselves to extend such feeling toward others? If two men sides in a war could put down their arms for a day or two, can we not do the same in circumstances far less dramatic? And thus is my thought and hope for you this holiday season.
May the year have found you joyful and happy and brought you love and comfort. May the next bring you even more. You are in my thoughts not just at this time of year but always. All my best hopes and wishes to you and yours and the thought of a happy, peaceful world as well.