Last week, an important event took place all across the world. An event that holds various meanings to every person in accordance to their religion, social status, nationality, race, culture and much more. It is one of those holidays that all people end up knowing about and celebrating in their own way, whether they actually believe in these things or not as the main aim of such a holiday is to bring people close to each other again. That rule was mandatory in the case of my family, since each one of us lived in a different country. Nevertheless, we would always do our best to be all united on December 25th of each year. No matter where we were on the planet or what we were doing, it was a family tradition to always spend Christmas together.
Through the years, the meaning of Christmas might have faded and been lost in the midst of materialistic things, as it is often perceived to be the time when companies manage to make most of their money for the year. Due to the restless pressure and atmosphere surrounding that holiday starting mid-November at the earliest, it feels almost like people are trapped in the social obligation and necessity to buy gifts, either for themselves or for their families. It almost feels that once the month of December starts, the necessity to show as if we actually care about the people around us becomes our first priority of the day until we get to the 25th. Past that date, things appear to instantly go back to normal, representing the type of behavior people would criticize their partners for around Valentine’s Day, or when we pretend to be doing good deeds and act like people of faith only when we go to church on Sunday, to the mosque on Friday, or the synagogue on Saturday.
In general, Christmas has become another opportunity for society to show to their social media feed how perfect their lives are, even if it means forgetting the real meaning of Christmas. Whether you are a Christian or not, I think this holiday celebrates three key values and beliefs we all share as human beings: caring for those in need, having a family care for us as we would care for it, and finding ways to become better people. After all, most of the Christmas songs we tend to listen to on the radio, at parties or in malls talk about the things I just mentioned. The most wholesome advertisement videos in connection to Christmas portray the importance of making it home for Christmas to be next to our loved ones.
Christmas is about coming home.
That last sentence made me pause for a while. December 25th is widely known as being Christmas Day, yet it holds another significant meaning as well in the history books. At that moment, I remembered a song I had heard seven years ago. A Christmas song that is never played anywhere during that time of year. A song that holds a story forgotten in time and that is never taught at school. A story capturing what Christmas is truly about in the eyes of those we encounter every day. A story so unique in the History of Mankind that it had never happened before, and has not happened since. A song that would make any person in the world sing: “I’m dreaming of Home”.
“The ones who call the shots will not be among the dead and lame,
And on each end of the rifle, we are the same”.
Let us take a trip back in time, shall we?
The date is December 24, 1914. World War I (also known as the Great War) has been going on for almost five months. We are positioned on the Western Front, somewhere between the North Sea and the Swiss border with France, and are running short on ammunition and provisions. This forces us to hold our position whilst waiting for our generals to reconsider their strategies and then give out their orders. We are not worried about being attacked, as the enemy finds themselves in the exact same situation, particularly after the stalemate of the Race to the Sea and the indecisive result of the First Battle of Ypres. Troops from both sides were digging their trenches and setting up camp. A ceasefire was planned for Christmas Day that year, as it is one of those unwritten warfare rules not to undergo battle during a religious holiday. However, no one could have predicted what happened that night. Regardless of how it started and why, two-thirds of German, French, Belgian, and British troops – about 100,000 men – participated in the miracle known today as the Christmas Truce of 1914.
Every country was celebrating Christmas Eve on their own side of the No Man’s Land as well as they possibly could since they were thousands of kilometers away from their loved ones. At one point, a particular song erupted from the British camp, accompanied with the sound of bagpipes that would carry the words outside of the camp to both allies and enemies. Maybe it was impossible to understand the entirety of the song, however every ear could understand the four most important words – which were also the title of the song – dear to every soldier’s heart: I’m Dreaming Of Home. Once the song was over, something had changed in the atmosphere initially filled with cold and death.
According to various journals, the Germans decided to up their game and started singing Christmas songs louder so that they could reach the other side. Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade recalled the events as follows: “First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’, the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war”.
The following morning across the trenches, German soldiers emerged, calling out “Merry Christmas” in English. Allied soldiers warily left their own trenches to greet them. In other places, Germans held up signs that read “You no shoot, we no shoot.” Throughout that Christmas day, troops from both sides exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons, and hats. The truce also allowed both sides to bury their own dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks on no man’s land. As the festivities went on, soldiers from both sides joined each other in various activities, such as pig-roasting, dancing, singing and even playing football games together. In the middle of the war known to have caused the highest number of casualties in History (around 9.7 million people died in the battlefields, while 10 million civilians were killed), soldiers from both sides came together for a time of peace and joy together.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. On December 26, 1914, battles were expected to resume on the Western Front. A task deemed almost impossible for the men in the trenches who spent the last two evenings fraternizing with the ones they are ordered once again to kill. With both sides refusing to open fire, generals from both sides had to come to an agreement in order for the war to pursue its course. Therefore, soldiers on both sides had to be relocated to different positions along the Front whilst facing severe consequences for their disobedience. The most famous sanction placed on a regiment that day was a German troop that was sent to Russia to die, as they were perceived as traitors by their people. Although there is no historical evidence to support that claim, it is said that once they all got on the train that was going to take them to Russia, the German soldiers started singing a song taught to them by the British, called “I’m Dreaming Of Home”. Since that day, the song has become known as L’Hymne des Fraternisés (The Hymn of the Fraternized).
“Keep the home fires burning,
While your hearts are yearning,
Though your lads are far away
They dream of home…”
– Jubb, who was serving with the 39th Battery of the Royal Field Artillery
There is not much to add after learning such an amazing yet sad story. It does leave a particular effect on you when you read about it, may it be the first time or the hundredth time. It brings hope that maybe – just maybe – it is always possible to find some good in this world, even when everything points in the opposite direction. If I ever had to go back to school and write about what I defined as the true meaning of Christmas, the Christmas Truce of 1914 would be the first thing that comes to mind without a shred of doubt.
Just for the hope that maybe we will find better endings.