Remembrance of the 1914 Christmas Truce: It’s Our Turn Now
This story begins by remembering that the true meaning of Christmas has always been the unexpected birth of New Life in a most degraded, forgotten, even despised place. There was a time when that location was imagined as a stable in Bethlehem. In our story, our savior was born into a degraded place fit for animals. In the early 20th century, that location was No Man’s Land — the devastated landscape between the enemy trenches. The word, Nonesmanneslond, first appeared in English in 1320 when it described a disputed territory beyond the rule of the church and the king.
Inspired by seeing the 2005 film, Joyeux Noël, I traveled to Ypres, Belgium on a peace pilgrimage in 2014. Joyeux Noël is a film I showed my students before winter break the last 8 Decembers of my career as a high school French teacher. The narrative followed the lives of French, Scottish, and German soldiers who decided to put down their weapons and come out of the trenches to meet each other in peace. The night of December 24th, 1914 there was a spontaneous pause in the slaughter.
First, the enemies sang songs to each other from their trenches. Slowly, they came to meet in No Man’s Land where fraternization through music led to mutual understanding and compassion. In some sectors along the front, the Truce extended into Christmas day and beyond with the soldiers coming together to bury their dead, to pray, even to play soccer. Some exchanged addresses in order to meet again after the war. Director Christian Carion in Joyeux Noël described the heart of why I became not just a French teacher, but a teacher, in the first place.
I envisaged a peace pilgrimage to No Man’s Land as a way to help bring more peace and understanding between cultures into the world. With the centennial of the cease-fire approaching, it seemed appropriate for me to go to the Western Front to a location where the original soldiers had gathered.
In my research, I learned that one place the Truce was celebrated was along the road between Ypres and Messines, Belgium. This area is remembered today in poetry as Flanders’ Fields, symbolized by the red poppy.
My intention was to emulate the courage of all who risked their lives for peace in order to build on it in our times. I felt strongly that now it’s our turn.
The road N365 runs for 11 kilometers between Ypres and Messines. I decided that I would walk and pray on N365 from December 24th, Christmas Eve, to the dawning of Christmas Day – the length of that highway from Ypres to Messines and back. I also decided to perform a ritual for Peace on Earth at the Island of Ireland Park in Messines. The Island of Ireland Peace Park is a memorial park where Catholic and Protestant Irishmen put aside their differences during the war. Even more importantly to me personally, that area of land is rumored to be a location where they celebrated the Truce.
I reflected for a long time on how to create my honorary vigil because the pilgrimage was so imbued with deep purpose. How should one best proceed given this once-in-a-lifetime chance? Something that had always stuck in my memory was how when the Great War broke out in August 1914, huge masses of people came into the streets to cheer. Why would entire populations rejoice at the prospect of war?
There is a poignant painting in Gare de l’Est in Paris by the American artist, Albert Herter (1871-1950), who lost his only son, Everit to the War in June 1918. It’s called, Le Départ des poilus, août 1914. (Departure of the Infantrymen, August, 1914)
Herter channeled his grief into this painting. His son is at the center with his arms help up in a “Y” shape. He is holding a gun with flowers in it, which was a common sight in the pre-war fervor that August. Women would come put flowers in the soldiers’ guns. “La fleur au fusil” represented the ease in which everyone believed the war would pass and also the courage to volunteer.
While he features his Everit swept up in the enthusiasm, the heart-broken painter appears at the right lowering flowers and holding his hand on his heart, as if at a grave.
On the other side is his wife who looks on at a child held by a soldier.
August, 1914 is well-covered ground so far as the causes for the war are concerned. The common 3 culprits are the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, nationalism, and militarism/alliances. To me, those 3 reasons have always seemed necessary but not sufficient. A deeper unseen power seemed necessary to explain why entire nations were possessed by such a destructive spirit bent on death. I unexpectedly found a satisfying insight in an ancient Anishinabe story about how First Man faced the being that killed his father.
In the story, the creature that killed First Man’s dad was the enemy of all life. That shadow-faced creature lived on a muddy, desolate island out on Lake Superior. The island of the enemy of all life was lifeless and barren save for a few dead trees. The unprecedented industrialized killing of La Grande Guerre also created a desolate ground, bristling with ruined trees. The landscapes were noticeably similar – muddy, lifeless, No man’s lands. I began to consider the idea that where we find the desolation of the Earth, there too dwells that-which-consumes-all-life.
The mythic lens gave me a way to imagine the invisible hunger at work urging the 1914 rush to war. Getting back to the tale, Woodpecker helped First Man by telling him that the enemy had its heart hidden on top of its head inside a shock of hair. Using that information, First Man dispatched the terrible creature by firing three arrows into its heart-in-the-wrong-place. The story’s symbolism suggested that enemy of life has its heart above its head. When our ideas have no heart in them, we become enemies of life and bring desolation to the Earth.
I wondered; Which heartless ideas, more precisely, which intentions, unseen in the air, encouraged the collective rush to war in 1914? Were any of those ideas still contaminating the air now? Was it possible that I was still unknowingly feeding those intentions? If so, could I tease out 3 of them by removing them from myself, therefore help remove them from the atmosphere around me?
I sensed that by entering into the journey down the Messines Road, I would get discernment about the life-eating thoughts at which I could then take aim. I trusted that I would be able to create my own “arrows” along the way. My greatest longing was to sing, with all my strength, an atmosphere of peace into the world that would build on the Truce.
Since 1928, every single evening there has been a ceremony called “The Last Post” at 8:00 PM, at the Menin Gate in Ypres. The Gate is a memorial to 58,000 dead who have never been found. To this day, bones are still unearthed in Flanders’ Fields and around Ypres. On the night of December 24, 2014 about two hundred people gathered, and, a young Scot, wearing his ancestor’s medals and a kilt, played the pipes in honor of his great-grandfather. At the end of The Last Post, the facilitator said, “And let us remember that one hundred years ago, on this night, the Christmas Truce was celebrated in places along the Western Front, including areas not far from here.” Hearing that, I began my pilgrimage.
I set out from that moment and walked from the Menin Gate south to the Messines Gate that opens onto N365 to Messines. I walked through that gate and moved into the clear, calm night. In the dark sky above me, the winter constellation of Orion the Hunter with his companion, Sirius, the Dog Star, shone brightly before me. The unexpected synchronicity was striking. In many cultures over the centuries, this pattern of stars has always been associated with restoration to new wholeness.
According to the many teachings, what once was degraded, lost and broken can be renewed. Whether it is the Chief’s Hand of the Lakota, the Fire Drill of the Aztecs, the Ojibway loving giant, Nanabush, or the Egyptians’ Body of Osiris, among others, the theme of healing a broken world through a collective new beginning recurs. It’s fascinating that the Hubble Telescope has discovered that in this same region of the night sky below Orion’s three-star belt is a stellar nursery. It’s as if our ancestors intuited this region where stars are born.
The correspondence between the birth of stellar lights in the heavens and the sacred birth that Christians celebrate at Christmas felt like an additional affirmation. With such an auspicious start, I felt assured that my efforts this night would not be in vain! Walking now with the hum of the synchronicity and under the revelation of those starry messengers, I next realized that the same cobalt blue tableau that the soldiers saw one hundred years ago was the one I was looking at too. It was as if time folded upon itself and we were all sharing in the same realization. One hundred years ago, a miracle came forth from the place most unexpected – out in No man’s land, under the aegis of the portents of restoration.
Silent Night, Holy Night,
all is calm, all is bright…
The song, “Silent Night,” was the trigger of peace all along the Front so long ago. As I walked on December 24, 2014, I saw how the hope expressed in the song was like a prayer that had been answered. It shone forth in the healed fields and restored nature around me. It had all come true. I stood in the radiant stillness of the night sky resonating with the words of that peacemakers’ song. It seemed so evident.
For 4.3 billion years now, Earth has been Our Mother, the source and teacher of life. Imagined as Grandmother, she has modeled all the cherished virtues of humanity: integrity, generosity, wisdom, love, creativity, authenticity, healing, harmony, truth…no single human faith or ideology has any claim, text or ritual that entitles its followers to privilege. The virtues, like the Earth that spread before me, are possessed by no one – our entire planet belongs to all, not just human beings, all living beings – in that sense, I had the insight that the starting point for peace on Earth returns again each year with the announcement that, all Creation is no man’s land.
How could the soldiers not sing together that night?
The invitation to come together in No man’s land came most often from the German trenches:
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht….
The German words offer another layer of meaning:
Silent Night, Holy Night,
All is calm; alone and awake.
Of course, “Silent Night” was the first song that I sang. Song followed song, prayer followed prayer, over the eleven kilometers to Messines. At times along the road, I felt waves of warm chills tingling all through my body. It felt like gratitude was coming from the landscape and sky around me. I understood the flow of warmth as the presence of the Holy. I would pause in those places, and allow them to register. In that way I simply witnessed receptively. Often, there would be a gentle rushing of wind through the trees above me. At times, I wept for the beauty of it. After so much violence and misplaced passion, all that have ever lived before us, all of our Ancestors, wish most for us to walk in a beautiful and peaceful world.
I walked through the village of Messines to the “Island of Ireland Peace Park.” During the Truce, the Protestant and Catholic Irishmen were joined by Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and atheist Germans. On a small bench near the tower at the Peace Park I sang my prayers. Singing under the peaceful starry heavens, I wondered, is it our songs that make the difference? There is a famous rabbi who said, Good wins out in the end, but not by much. Do the songs that unite us through compassion, even for our enemies, tip the balance? Walking north, back to Ypres after the ceremony at the Peace Park, the constellation Cassiopeia, the queen of heaven, went before me. To my left was the constellation Boötes, the shepherd.
Silent Night, Holy Night,
Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar….
In the Anishinaabe story about the enemy of life, the shadow face of the creature was code for “face my shadow”. So I faced those parts of my psychology that are unowned, denied, repressed, unacknowledged. I realized that the target I was seeking was not just ideas that have hurt me through others, but ideas and intentions in which somehow I have participated. Feeling even more in my heart and body, as the awareness of pain in my feet increased, three destructive ideas in my life stood out.
I can describe them using Herter’s painting. Recalling his son’s gesture with his arms in their ‘Y’, I was reminded of some of the crucifixes found in road-side altars in Belgium. The arms of the Crucified Savior are in the same ‘Y’ shape.
Wishing to harm no one, only to offer this information if it’s helpful, I came to focus on 3 self-destructive ideas that possessed me over the years. They came from Christianity. My family on both sides that past 900 years or so has been predominantly Christian, so I came by these ideas honestly. At times, I held the ideas righteously.
John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only son.
After living for centuries under its dogma, was Europe possessed by an unconscious Christianity? There are ideas within Christianity that encourage the devaluing of human life and life on Earth. I know this because I have struggled with them myself my whole life.
The first idea was that Christianity is a victorious religion. I’ve been inside this idea and am now sheepish to admit about the certainty I felt when I believed my religion was superior to all others. It can be helpful to remember that Christianity began as a religion of love. Christian soldiers were a problem in the Roman army because they refused to carry weapons. Christianity became a religion of war during the reign of Constantine. The legend is that he was told in a dream that he would be victorious in battle by using a symbol called the Chi Rho:
The god of the emperors of Rome was Sol Invictus in which the emperor was imagined as an undefeatable man who was also God. From then on, Christianity and success in war became problematically entangled with the indestructible god-man.
A similar adoption of Christianity happened in France with its first Christian king, Clovis. In the legend, Clovis was in trouble on the battlefield of Tolbiac and prayed to the God of his wife that if he was victorious, then he would convert to Christianity. The Franks were victorious, so it followed, then, that France became a Christian nation. There can be an unconscious drive to absolute victory that we carry inside of us due to our Christian history. I had it and it was very hard to release its importance to my self-image. In fact, it’s an idea that possessed me as much as I possessed it.
The second idea was that Earth and all life in our world is less valuable than an Eternal life after we die. Paul in Romans 8: 18 wrote:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
This is just one passage among many in the New Testament where the suggestion is that life on our planet is ‘less-than’. If you scratch very carefully under the surface of seemingly heroic deeds, you may find a secret death-wish. This one has been a hard fact to admit about myself. For many years, I hid my secret death-wish inside my spiritual aspirations. What I am describing in myself is the desire to not be alive here — despair. I know that at certain points of my life, if war had broken out, I would have gone to seek an heroic death, all the while silent about my despair.
The third idea was the doctrine of Original Sin, as articulated by Augustine. With this idea, because of the Fall of Adam and Eve, the entire universe was corrupted and all humanity became a massa damnata. (mass of perdition) How this lived in me was in the value I placed on myself. I can describe the difference between a universe of Original Sin and a universe that is immanently flowing with Divinity. There is a small asterisk that gets added to every expression in wisdom texts when you live in the universe of Original Sin.
*because you are worthless.
In a universe flowing with Divinity, this nuance does not appear. Over years in a lifetime, under the doctrine of Original Sin, the human worth-less-ness accrues. There’s a small, but important difference between:
Be still and know that I am God – Psalm 46:10
Be still and know that I am God* — Psalm 46:10
(*because you are worthless)
Distilling from my life the 3 ideas — that Christianity is always victorious, Eternity and later is better than here and now, and the entire universe is corrupt, I prepared the following vaccines. As the old story suggested, I became First Man and I drew three “shots”.
1.The sacred is always vulnerable, generous and merciful.
2.Heaven is always in our midst, all life is woven with Eternity.
3.The entire cosmos is sacred and nourishes a sacred humanity.
I can attest that I think my song-arrows struck true. I felt the affirmation in my body. Walking back toward Ypres in the growing light of daybreak, I again felt the warm waves moving through me, soothing my heart. With each passing kilometer, I felt such an embodied appreciation for the precious gift of a human life on our planet. Again, I felt gratitude coming to me from everything around me, above, below, all around, and within.
I felt an increase in my esteem for all humanity. I felt then and feel now that our lifetimes are each so valuable that even our worst moments support inner worth. Aren’t even our worst failures opportunities to learn to transform human life into beauty? My wish was and is that through learning from the past, may we remove some of the violence from the world. May we may offer healing to those who have died, to those now suffering and who are in despair. May we know again the true meaning of Christmas.
I walked the Messines Road a century after the Christmas Truce. My prayers were for us to gather once again in the holy silence. Could we as one people sing our hopes together to bring forth the beautiful world we wish for future generations? The longing for a Holy Night, a Silent Night, from an unexpected time and forgotten place came true once. If it happened once, it can surely come to pass once more. It’s our turn now.
How could we not sing together?
Human beings are all one people.