"Peace on Earth" in Wartime

In December 1914, young men hunkered down in the muddy trenches of the Western Front. Back in July, when the conflict had started, people said the war would be over by Christmas, but now five months into it, the reality of a long and bloody war was setting in.

Far from home, damp from the autumn rains, and surrounded by ever rising mud, to the men in the trenches, Christmas probably seemed a foreign comfort. Within sight of No Man’s Land, still dotted with the dead and dying, Christmas trees were brought to the German lines, decorated and lit. Care packages of cigarettes, puddings, and sweets were delivered to the soldiers.

What happened next is the stuff of legend and sappy holiday movies. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, a truce spread spontaneously through the Western Front.

It was by no means uniform. Accounts vary and historians debate the details. In some areas, Germans shouted or held up signs saying “WE NO SHOOT, YOU NO SHOOT.” In others, a few brave individuals ventured out of the trenches with arms waving wildly to show they were unarmed. Some recall carols sung together by the two sides, deep voices rising from the trenches singing a song they both knew in their own language: Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.

Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright.

And for one day, in the midst of the unbelievable carnage of the First World War, all was silent. Men from both sides of the conflict tentatively emerged from their trenches and met in the middle of No Man’s Land. They exchanged gifts from the little care packages they had been sent and laughed and talked together. In some areas, informal soccer games took place. There was space to breathe and be a human again. There was quiet to help each other bury the dead.

Of course we all know the truce did not last. Christmas passed. The shooting resumed, and the war would leave 15 million dead. Commanders, furious over what they considered to be fraternizing with the enemy, ensured that no similar event occurred through the remainder of the war. But for that first Christmas of World War I, there was a glimmer of peace and goodwill.

It is fitting for the celebration of Christ’s birth to be an inspiration for peace. The angelic choir proclaimed peace on earth and goodwill toward men at Christ’s birth (Luke 2:14). Jesus was the promised Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). He brings peace with God, peace with other people, and peace for our hearts, so prone to be troubled and afraid.

In a world in which peace seems elusive, let us remember this season the promise that our Prince of Peace will establish his kingdom in which peace will have no end.

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”