Silent Night

Among the most beloved words I know are these:
“And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,
Praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven
And peace among those whom he favors. (or with whom he is pleased)'”

The words strike deeply in our hearts whether recited by a child, or sung gorgeously by a choir, or inscribed on a greeting card from a precious friend, and the reason is that ‘Peace on Earth, good will among those with whom God is pleased’, or among anyone for that matter, has never seemed more remote and elusive. The bizarre cruelty of ISIS punctuates just how remote and elusive peace is. In fact, sometimes it seems that hoping for peace, expecting peace, praying for peace is the most pathetically naive of human projects.

We have been remembering the First World War during this 100th anniversary year of its outbreak in 1914. The first mechanized war, it was fought for what seems like trivial reasons, but the cost in human life was enormous and horrifying. It was to be “The war to end all wars.” The height of tragic irony is that WWI was merely prelude to an even greater, more violent and lethal war, and the beginning of uninterrupted violence, suffering and tragedy for the next century. Are we naive to keep talking about, hoping and praying for peace?

On Christmas Eve of the first year of WWI, December 24, 1914, an amazing thing happened. In just a few months after it started, on July 18, two great armies, hundreds of thousands of British, French and German troops and their allies faced each other across a front that extended along the French-Belgium border. Troops were dug in, in trenches cut into the soggy, muddy soil, lighted only by candles, lanterns and flashlights. It was a constant struggle to keep the mud walls from collapsing and the trenches from flooding. Just 50 to 100 yards away was the enemy trench. Each side’s trench was protected by coils of barbed wire. In between was “No-man’s land.” Snipers were posted by each side with orders to shoot anything that moved in the opposite trench. Hand grenades were thrown, artillery shells lobbed, occasional charges up out of the trenches were launched, almost always with terrible loss of life. The trenches were close enough that men in one could hear the enemies’ voices.

As Christmas approached, troops on both sides received packages from home to boost morale. British troops received a “Princess Mary Packet,” cigarettes, pipe tobacco and a greeting card from King George V in addition to an individual plum pudding and Cadbury Chocolates. German packages included tobacco and pipe, a profile of Crown Prince Frederick Wilhelm and gifts of sausages and beer. The German government also sent bundles of Christmas trees to the front.

During the day of December 24 the shooting strangely slowed down and then stopped altogether. No orders were given. Combatants simply stopped shooting at one another. In the early evening British troops were startled to see Christmas trees with lighted candles on the parapets of the German trench. A German voice called out: “A gift is coming now.” The British dove for cover, expecting a grenade. What came across was a boot filled with sausages. The British troops responded with a plum pudding and greeting card from the King.

Singing started: patriotic and military songs at first, followed by applause from the opposite trench. Then, in an eerie silence, “Stille Nacht, Heiloge Nacht”, the Germans sang and the British joined in, all up and down the front: “Silent Night, Holy Night.”

Christmas Day opposing troops ventured out into no man’s land, extended greetings, awkward handshakes and small gifts. It was a Christmas Truce. At several places soccer games were played. Decades later Paul McCartney wrote a song about it, “Pipes of Peace.”

After a week or so the shooting resumed: six thousand deaths per day for 46 months. The entire incident is recounted  in a book, Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, by Stanley Weintraub. At the end the author reflects, “The Christmas Truce has lingered strikingly in memory… a potent symbol of stubborn humanity within us.”

That story is almost too good to be true. It sounds like something created for a sappy soap opera. And yet, it happened, and it is no more unrealistic than the news the angel announced, that a newborn is the Savior, and it is no more naive than our faith that the birth means that peace is always possible, close at hand, even if quietly, undramatically, like the birth itself.


  1. “Silent Night, Holy Night,” “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht,” and the many other languages into which this text has been translated, will be sung by millions tonight to welcome the birth of our Saviour. The words we mouth may be slightly different; the tune will be the same. For a few moments again tonight, as in World War I, our world will be at peace as we sing together, so many of us voicing the same sung prayer. The places will be different, the accompaniment not the same, the circumstances of the individuals singing as unique as each singer. Yet each of us will remember that holy night and recreate it with that lovely tune and those beautiful words, not alone, but together, all over the world. Ah, we must sing as if our singing will change us, and we in turn will change the world in which we live. As John Buchanan begins his sermons, “Startle us, O God. . . .”

  2. Jared Valet says:

    Grace always seems to appear at the most unexpected moments. I thank God for that…

  3. Margaret Laing says:

    Thank you for a beautiful story. I rejoice that as remarkable as it seems, it is not too good to be true. May those still standing up for what we believe find comfort in something like this 100-year-old story — and the much older one it commemorates, of course.

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