On the longest night of the year, I was at my computer struggling to compose a holiday greeting. It was about two in the morning and I decided to take a break and search online for an interesting Christmas story. Our family had been invited to come to a friendís house the following evening to share in an old fashioned poetry and story reading,"something Christmas related," my friend had said.
Our families met a couple of years ago when their nine year old daughter joined the soccer team I was coaching and which my own daughter was on. They pulled up to the first practice in an old Toyota which sported Montana license plates and a "Free Tibet" sticker. They had just moved to town.
The mother soon proved herself to be one of the most thoughtful, compassionate, and generous people Iíve ever known; surreptitiously leaving me baked goods in my car from the bakery she and her husband were operating, offering to help out whenever and wherever needed, and always positive and enthusiastic. In our chats after practice, we soon learned that we had many things in common: similar parenting styles, similar eclectic and somewhat radical ideas about education, similar values and approaches to living... Our daughters, and our families, were soon hitting it off and it wasnít long before we got together and shared a meal.
Itís funny how laying food out on a table tends to encourage the laying out of our most deeply held beliefs as well. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the ancient and almost sacred act of breaking bread makes us feel safe, nourished, and trusting enough to be ourselves. The topic soon turned to politics.
Somehow, politics had never been a direction our afternoon chats had wandered, surprisingly, considering how much time I was then spending researching the events of September 11th and the disturbing conclusions I was coming to and so vocal about with everyone else.
But here we were breaking bread together and talking politics for the first time. I quickly realized Iíd made an incorrect assumption. Never assume that just because someone drives a car with a "Free Tibet" sticker on the back it automatically means the passengers are politically liberal.
Thus began an interesting and somewhat tentative friendship with Libertarian leaning Bush supporters.
My new friend and I continued to have wonderful dialogues about mothering, schooling, etc. Our families still shared meals, though with a tacit agreement to avoid discussing politics. Over time however, concurrent with the Bush administrationís rush to war in Iraq, the dinner dates and get togethers began happening less and less frequently. This didnít stop the kids however, who still continued to have their play-dates and sleep-overs.
Kids donít care what someoneís politics are. Itís not that they donít care in the sense of being un- interested. In fact in the past few months Iíve been surprised at how many times I overheard kids asking their friends--whose parents represented the entire political spectrum--who they were "voting" for, and regardless of the answer, would continue on happily with whatever they were mutually engaged in.
Shortly before Novemberís election, my friendís daughter showed up for her classes at the local homeschooling center our family also attendsĖa place widely regarded as being fairly liberal (though political labels are such an ineffective way of defining anyone). Sheíd just been to a Bush rally the previous day and was covered from head to toe in Bush placards and buttons. My first feeling upon seeing her was one of frustration and dismay. Iíd had my own Bush experience the previous day in which I witnessed first hand a very disturbing assault upon civil liberties and was feeling especially concerned about the direction our country was headed. Seeing this young girl so gleefully supporting Bush almost sent me over the edge. Almost immediately however, I caught myself in another faux pas. This one perhaps more major than the last. How could I worry about the demise of civil liberties on one hand and be upset with an eleven year old for exercising hers on the other?
Two days later I observed this same 11 year old girl, still sporting her Bush buttons, giggling and eating lunch with a friend. Her friend wore a hand painted "Kids for Kerry" t-shirt festooned with Kerry buttons. They certainly didnít seem to be having any problems with each other.
These events and observations brought about a needed shift in my perceptions. Which in turn also seemed to precipitate a positive shift, despite political differences, in the friendship our families shared. Even so, however, thereís been one nagging question Iíve been unable to ignore. How could they be supportive of Bush? Itís a question Iíve regularly, and timidly, pondered asking them.
When my friend called this week inviting our family over for a holiday gathering, asking us to bring along a reading, I told her that weíd love to attend and that Iíd be sure to bring along something "anti-christmas or political" to read. Itís the most "political" thing Iíve said to her in months. It was met with silence. I laughed. For a moment sheíd thought I was serious.
Trying to find an interesting Christmas story or poem to share, I googled "a Christmas story." The search returned 605,000 results, the first of many being for the 1983 childrenís movie of the same name. Obviously I needed to narrow my defining operators so I added the word peace to my search. I knew this would turn up a plethora of results as well, but was especially interested in finding a story I could share that talked about peace. Jesus was the prince of it after all.
My search returned 48,900 results. I havenít a clue what 48, 899 of them were however, because the very first one was all I needed. It was THE story I knew I was looking for.
The story, published on December 9, 2004 by the well regarded University of Wisconsin-Madison student newspaper, and written by Nick BarbashĖ a sophomore majoring in political science and international studiesĖis titled "A Christmas story of peace and love."
Here was the retelling of a storyĖa true storyĖthat happened 90 years ago this Christmas Eve, about soldiers in a time of war laying down their weapons for a brief moment in time, and coming together to celebrate their humanity.
Sometime around 9 p.m., a company sergeant-major in the North Staffordshire Regiment reported to his commander that several dozen German soldiers had climbed out of the trenches and were lighting candles and singing songs. The commander peered out over the parapet and was astonished to see a single unarmed German soldier walking toward them bearing a white flag. He crawled out of the British trench and met the soldier halfway across the battlefield, where he discovered the German had been a waiter in England before the war and was interested in trading cigars for brandy. He took the British commander to a group of German officers, and it was agreed there would be an unofficial truce until midnight of Christmas night.
All along the Western Front, hundreds of soldiers on both sides poured out of the trenches into no man's land to celebrate Christmas with the men they had sworn to kill...
The opposing sides exchanged candy, liquor, cigarettes and plum pudding. They roasted a pig. They played an enthusiastic soccer game on the frozen ground...They sang carols of the season, never caring that some of them sang "Stille Nacht" while others sang "Silent Night." They helped bury each other's dead and recited prayers for peace together.
As I read, a dim recognition of the story came from some remote corner of my memory. Maybe Iíd read a version of it somewhere, or perhaps Iíd heard about it on TV, or maybe a history class mentioned it, or maybe itís just some primal knowing that humankind has the potential for such things. Nevertheless, I was stunned. I immediately began searching the internet for more details. I wanted to verify the story, but was also incredibly intrigued and wanted to learn more. Apparently, many people through the years have tried to chalk the story up to being mostly legend. But in a 2001 interview in the National Review, Stanley Weintraub, author of Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, tells how he became convinced it was more than myth.
In 1985 I published a book about the five days leading up to the Armistice in November 1918, A Stillness Heard Round the World: The End of the Great War. While researching it I discovered the abortive informal armistice in 1914 that had bubbled up from the ranks on Christmas Eve. Although it clearly happened, and survivors had been on a BBC television documentary in 1982, the event had taken on the quality of myth. I determined to find out more, particularly to grasp the mythic power that the truce seemed to possess, and to examine it from both sides. I had begun my earlier book with the line, "Peace is harder to make than war," and as I worked on Silent Night that line became even more meaningful. Although I was working on other books at the time, including two on World War II and several biographies, every time I went to England or Germany on other research, I dipped into files of newspapers for January 1915, as troops mesmerized by the miraculous Christmas peace, a sort of waking dream they could hardly believe, wrote home about it. In those pre-censorship days, the letters were often sent on to local newspapers, which printed them. Then I went to the military archives. It was all real ó even the football games (our soccer) in No Man's Land. I even found some of the scores.
In 1998, BBC News ran a story based on the book Christmas Truce which was written by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton.
The Christmas truce of 1914 really happened. It is as much a part of the historical texture of World War I as the gas clouds of Ypres or the Battle of the Somme or the Armistice of 1918. Yet it has often been dismissed as though it were merely a myth. Or, assuming anything of the kind occurred, it has been seen as a minor incident, blown up out of all proportion, natural fodder for sentimentalists and pacifists of later generations.
But the truce did take place, and on some far greater scale than has been generally realised. Enemy really did meet enemy between the trenches. There was for a time, genuine peace in No Man's Land. Though Germans and British were the main participants, French and Belgians took part as well. Most of those involved agreed it was a remarkable way to spend Christmas. "Just you think," wrote one British soldier, "that while you were eating your turkey, etc, I was out talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before! It was astounding!"
I canít help but wonder. How many of todayís servicemen and women deployed in Iraq, or how many of the so called "insurgents" who are really mostly just regular people resisting an illegal occupation, or how many of the innocent bystanders and victims of war would really just prefer a nice meal together, an exchange of simple gifts, and perhaps a nice game of soccer rather than all the senseless killing and dying currently taking place?
Weintraub doubts that the kind of truce that took place in No Manís Land 90 years ago could ever happen again, saying at the end of his interview, "To see a common humanity in likely future opponents seems unlikely. A Christmas truce could not happen again without a mutual respect for the values of Christmas."
I see his point, but Iíd like to respectfully disagree. I have much more in common with my Bush supporting friend than a shared holiday. Our humanity is not bound by our religious beliefs, by what we do for a living or live to do, by what color our skin is, by how much money we have or donít have, nor even, as I now realize, is it bound by what our politics might be. Our humanity is much bigger and deeper than that.
I shared Nickís story at the reading last night. I also shared the poem, Christmas in the Trenches, written twenty years ago by John McCutcheon. It was met, despite all the mixed political viewpoints in the room, with resounding applause. We ourselves were meeting in our own No Manís Land after all, rising above our petty differences and recognizing something more deeply shared.
Another Christmas truce like the one that took place all along the Western Front in the winter of 1914 may be unlikely. And sending cards proclaiming "Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All" are but meaningless and futile exercises if we canít find that space between the trenchesĖthat no manís land that is really everymanísĖ where we, if even for only but a moment, see ourselves and our humanity reflected in anotherís eyes. Deep down we know we share something greater than the values of the few but powerful people asking us to kill each other. Deep down we know we share something far greater than the values proclaimed by any one religious, political, or cultural belief.
It is my wish for humanity that we start living more fully that which we deeply know. For when we do, No Manís Land will cease being littered with the awful detritus of our fear and in its place will bloom the hope, life, and dreams we all commonly share. And then we shall finally know the true meaning of Christmas and Peace on Earth.
Debi Smith writes from Ashland, Oregon, where she shares a home with her husband, two children, a cat, and a dog. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org