Silent Night

One of the most amazing events of the First World War happened 100 years ago today. As a historian of World War I, I can’t let the day go by without retelling this story, which is one of my all-time favorite Christmas stories, and by he way if you have not seen this commercial by Salisbury, you really should.  The picture above is from the commercial.  Click on this link to watch it:  http://youtu.be/NWF2JBb1bvM. It was made in partnership with The Royal British Legion and was inspired by real events from 100 years ago today. I cried the first time I watched it because it’s such an inspiring story of the spirit of Christmas.

During World War I, on Christmas Day 1914, the sounds of rifles firing and shells exploding faded in a number of places along the Western Front in favor of holiday celebrations in the trenches and gestures of goodwill between enemies. On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested a temporary hiatus of the war for the celebration of Christmas. Though Germany readily agreed, the other powers refused.Even without a cessation of war for Christmas, family and friends of the soldiers wanted to make their loved ones’ Christmas special. They sent packages filled with letters, warm clothing, food, cigarettes, and medications. Yet what especially made Christmas at the front seem like Christmas were the troves of small Christmas trees.

On Christmas Eve, many German soldiers put up Christmas trees, decorated with candles, on the parapets of their trenches. Hundreds of Christmas trees lighted the German trenches and although British soldiers could see the lights, it took them a few minutes to figure out what they were from. Could this be a trick? British soldiers were ordered not to fire but to watch them closely. Instead of trickery, the British soldiers heard many of the Germans celebrating.  They heard songs that were very familiar being sung in the other trenches:

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

The British responded with the song in their own language:

Silent night, holy night
All is calm all is bright
‘Round yon virgin Mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

Starting on Christmas Eve, many German and British troops sang Christmas carols to each other across the lines, and at certain points the Allied soldiers even heard brass bands joining the Germans in their joyous singing.

At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s-land, calling out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ native tongues. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers. The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs. There was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer.

Some soldiers used this short-lived ceasefire for a more somber task: the retrieval of the bodies of fellow combatants who had fallen within the no-man’s land between the lines.

The so-called Christmas Truce of 1914 came only five months after the outbreak of war in Europe and was one of the last examples of the outdated notion of chivalry between enemies in warfare. It was never repeated—future attempts at holiday ceasefires were quashed by officers’ threats of disciplinary action—but it served as heartening proof, however brief, that beneath the brutal clash of weapons, the soldiers’ essential humanity endured.

During World War I, the soldiers on the Western Front did not expect to celebrate on the battlefield, but even a world war could not destory the Christmas spirit.

The First World War is one of my favorite topics of study. It is so important for much of the history of the twentieth century, even though it is often overlooked. We, the GLBT community, also owe a great deal to the Great War. The First World War traumatised millions of men and challenged hegemonic conceptions of masculinity. In the post-war era, battles raged between competing socio-political groups over masculinity and the war experience. The homosexual movement posed one of the most significant challenges to pre-war gender norms. The war galvanised homosexuals to challenge social and cultural perceptions of gays as degenerate ‘enemies of the nation’. The movement was fragmented by rivalries and theoretical differences, but the memory of the war served as a central reference point for defining homosexual identity, masculinity and political rights in the Weimar Republic. The First World War was a turning point for Germany’s homosexual movement, as the war provided a central ideal – comradeship – that became a cornerstone for defining homosexual identity and justifying emancipation. An intensely militarised rhetoric permeated the language of gay rights organisations in the 1920s and, despite the differences among those organisations, the war gave homosexuals similar visions of a spiritually and politically liberated gay man who could use his training at the front to fight legal oppression and cultural prejudice.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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