The Edmond Sun

December 21, 2012

1914 Christmas miracle resonates today

Mike Hinkle
Special to The Sun

EDMOND — If “revisit” means “visit again,” and “rethink” means “think again,” what does “rejoice” mean? Well, it obviously means “joice” some more. The linguistic connection between “joy” and “rejoice” is obvious and we hear a lot about joy and rejoicing this time of year. We are encouraged to be particularly mindful not only of our private blessings but also to celebrate the general outpouring of goodwill shared by people all across the world — regardless of private beliefs.

One of the most dramatic and beautiful examples of the power of rejoicing is recorded in connection with an event taking place almost 100 years ago. In December 1914, the world was in the grips of the most terrible and bloody conflict in history. Unspeakably bitter trench warfare stretched along the Western front from the North Sea to the border of Switzerland. Hundreds of thousands of young men died agonizing deaths from artillery shell, bullet, bayonet — and cold — in numberless assaults between frozen mud-filled trenches. Countless others survived to spend the rest of their lives struggling with disabling, disfiguring wounds. In the history of mankind, there was never such a concentration of murderous power and intent directed so successfully at so many.

In the midst of the blood, misery and despair, as Christmas approached, some German soldiers in Belgium took advantage of a lull in the fighting to place Christmas candles around their frozen trenches and decorate some nearby trees. They sang some carols. From the trenches across the bloody “no man’s land” came the amazing sound of answering carols. Soldiers locked in bloody life-and-death struggle, overcome by the Christmas spirit, were singing to each other.

Something magical happened. Soldiers on all sides put away their weapons, their hatreds and suspicions and crossed the lines to shake hands, to embrace, to share gifts and to help each other bury their dead.

This unofficial truce was not enjoyed by all units along the front. Many continued to fight their terrible battles through Christmas. But those fortunate enough to be touched by this Christmas miracle caught a glimpse of the incredible potential for good that might spring from the power to rejoice.

So what does this quaint, curious and short-lived moment of mutual forbearance and shared tradition have to teach us today? This is where I resist the temptation to get preachy. This is where each of us must answer the question for ourselves. Maybe there’s nothing to learn. Maybe the Christmas of 1914 was a historical anomaly that has no practical application to our lives today — individually or as a society.

But I don’t think I’m out of line in suggesting there are a multitude of reasons for rejoicing all around us. And, I believe I’m justified in disclosing a certain bias I have in this regard. I am convinced that mankind generally, and the American people in particular, have the capacity for overcoming the differences that prevent us from working together to accomplish the good.

Note that the miraculous truce of 1914 was not officially sanctioned by any government or higher command. In fact, this unseemly “fraternization” was formally disapproved by headquarters. Remarkably, in subsequent Christmases, soldiers were specifically forbidden to engage in expressions of mutual goodwill with the enemy. The outpouring of kindness and forbearance in the winter of 1914 was a grassroots expression of a heartfelt desire for peace. This expression was kindled by a common desire to rejoice and it burst into benevolent flame when that rejoicing became real and shared. What I’m saying here is that this miracle occurred in spite of government action, not because of it.

Sadly, there was never again such a widespread outpouring of mutual respect and kindness among combatants in World War I or, thereafter, as far as I can tell. Historians, anthropologists, psychologists and social critics all have their explanations why this remarkable truce occurred. But we have to wonder whether peace-loving people locked in bitter struggles around the world can’t, in the midst of their struggles, find occasion for rejoicing and convert that rejoicing into a springboard for peace.

In our own country, we have to ask this question. If German and Allied soldiers could suspend their efforts to kill each other long enough to sing carols together, why can’t we stop demonizing each other long enough to share views civilly?

Many years after that wonderful truce of 1914, some of the combatants reunited on the battleground to commemorate the miracle. Despite the differences in language, nationality and ideology, in the eyes of history, they will be bound forever by that glorious moment when rejoicing produced — peace. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.

MIKE HINKLE is an Edmond resident and retired attorney.