This is a season of warm holiday fiction, from Dicken's A Christmas Carol to "It's a Wonderful Life." Something about the holidays makes us yearn for tales of grace and transcendence, breakthrough and redemption, and since it so seldom happens in real life, we have to make it up.
But sometimes it does happen in real life.
Most heartwarming Christmas stories are too good to be true, but get repeated because they feed that part of human nature desperately wishing they were true.
But some stores are both good and true, despite being wonderful. The Christmas Truce of 1914 is one of those.
It was 99 years ago tonight, in the world's first war -- they called it "The Great War" while it was going on, not knowing it would lead directly to a second. It had started in August, and by Dec. 24, 1914, a million men had already died. The German and British armies faced each other across the Western Front. After night fell, the Germans set up Christmas trees and candles atop their trenches; the Allied soldiers could hear them singing.
"It was a beautiful moonlit night," remembered Pvt. Albert Moren of the Second Queens Regiment, who was stationed near the village of La Chapelle d'Armentieres in Northern France. "Frost on the ground, white almost everywhere. About seven or eight in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and there were these lights —I don't know what they were. And then they sang 'Silent Night' -- 'Stille Nacht.' I shall never forget it, it was one of the highlights of my life. I thought, 'what a beautiful tune.'"
Then a few soldiers climbed out of their trenches, met in No-Man's-Land, shook hands, tentatively at first. More followed. They exchanged tobacco and souvenirs, bowed their heads in prayer, played games of soccer. Not everyone was pleased with this of course. "Such things should not happen in wartime," Cpl. Adolf Hitler chastised his comrades in the 16th Barvarian Corps. "Have you Germans no sense of honor left at all?" *
It hadn't come out of nowhere -- the trenches were 50 yards apart. Groups of soldiers had previously conversed, played music for each other. And the idea had been floated by Pope Benedict XV, who suggested a break in the fighting for Christmas.
That's what Christmas is supposed to do -- inspire us to pause from the daily battle, to reach for the life and beauty that is waiting there, whether in music and peace, or faith and festivity.
Christmas is the only religious holiday that is observed by the United States federal government. Mail stops, offices and businesses close, even FedEx doesn't deliver. An economy that prides itself on selling you stuff whenever you want to buy it -- 24 hours a day, 7 days a week online, and close to that in the steel-and-flesh world, pauses to take a breath. It's a good idea even if you hold the faith lightly, if at all.
On Dec. 24, the day starts out normally, often with work and the office, stores and shopping. Then as the day progresses things ... just ... slow ... down. The world seems to empty out. People exchange their wishes in offices that are half empty anyway, make a last, half-hearted stab at reaching people who left work hours ago, then go home themselves. Then things really quiet down, and in that hush, you can hear what normally gets drowned out, you can see the human spirit that gets lost in the cannonade of daily life. You can reach toward something beyond yourself.
The Christmas Truce ended Dec. 26, the war started up again, and lasted nearly four more years, taking millions more lives. It was an extraordinary occurrence, and makes you wonder: if the Germans and the British could do it, then, why can't we now? What did Tommy and Fritz know in 1914 that Democrats and Republicans can't figure out today? Why the peace that can come on Christmas, then and now, can't last throughout the year is a worthy thought to ponder as we savor the warmth and plenty of our homes, our families and our precious lives.
* From "The truce of Christmas, 1914," by Thomas Vinciguerra; New York Times. Dec. 25, 2005