How do you think of Christmas time? Over the past few decades, I’ve come to see winter as a time of peace. A time to pull inward; a time for personal reflection and a time to breath in the wonder and awe in the world around me.
The story that most connects me to the power of this special time is the one that John McCutcheon sings about called Christmas In The Trenches. It’s based on a true story and I’ve begun to retell that story and play McCutcheon’s song each Christmas for the past five years now. Five years! Wow.
Here’s John McCutcheon’s beautiful ballad of one Christmas Eve, back in 1914.
[learn_more caption=”Here are the lyrics”] My name is Francis Tolliver. I come from Liverpool. Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school. From Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here, I fought for King and country I love dear.
It was Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung. The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas songs were sung. Our families back in England were toasting us that day, Their brave and glorious lads so far away.
I was lyin’ with my mess-mates on the cold and rocky ground, When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound. Says I “Now listen up me boys,” each soldier strained to hear As one young German voice sang out so clear.
“He’s singin’ bloody well you know,” my partner says to me. Soon one by one each German voice joined in, in harmony. The cannons rested silent. And the gas cloud rolled no more, As Christmas brought us respite from the war.
Well, as soon as they were finished, and a reverent pause was spent. “God rest ye merry, gentlemen” struck up some lads from Kent. The next they sang was Stille Nacht. “Tis Silent Night,” says I. And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.
“There’s someone comin’ towards us,” the front-line sentry cried. All sights were fixed on one lone figure trudging from their side. His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright, As he bravely strode, unarmed, into the night.
Soon one by one on either side walked into no-man’s-land. With neither gun nor bayonet, we met there hand to hand. We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well, And in a flare-lit soccer game, we gave ’em hell.
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home, These sons and fathers far away from families of their own. Young Sanders played his squeezebox; they had a violin, This curious and unlikely band of men.
Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more. With sad farewells, we each began to settle back to war. But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night, “Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”
Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung. The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung. For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war, Had been crumbled and were gone forever more.
Oh, my name is Francis Tolliver. In Liverpool I dwell. Each Christmas come since World War One I’ve learned its lessons well. For the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame. And on each end of the rifle, we’re the same.
— John McCutcheon “Christmas in the trenches” 1989[/learn_more]
If you want to get a fuller sense of the story, try this YouTube video, The Christmas Truce of 1914. It’s eight and a half minutes long. Essentially, you’ll hear how there were signs of this coming truce two weeks earlier; the various truces were widely reported in the newspapers of the day. And there’s a one-hour BBC documentary that pulls it all together, excerpted down to thirteen minutes here.
There are all those earlier posts too, don’t forget.
My Annual Christmas Eve Post (2016)
Christmas In the Trenches (2013)
Until next year, may the peace that passes all understanding be with you during these hectic holiday weeks.