One of the most powerful symbolic moments of humanity was on display in the most unlikely of places—the cold, mud-filled trenches along the Western front during the Great War on Christmas Eve 1914. The day had seen very little shelling or rifle fire, and, by nightfall, the shooting had completely stopped.
Later that night, the British troops could hear sounds floating across the frozen battlefield: “Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles Schlaft, einsam wacht.” They did not understand the words, but the tune was unmistakably familiar. As they peered into the darkness over the edge of their waterlogged trenches, they saw what appeared to be candles and Christmas trees with lights on the edge of the German trenches, which were only thirty to seventy meters away. The British responded in kind and started singing Christmas carols as well.
As Christmas Day broke, the fraternization began in earnest after one German infantryman appeared holding a Tannenbaum—a miniature Christmas tree glowing with light. In his strong German accent, he declared, “Merry Christmas. We not shoot; you not shoot.”
Thus, the Christmas truce of 1914 was born.
Enlisted men and officers on both sides ventured into “no man’s land,” shook hands, serenaded each other with Christmas carols, told stories of life back home, and even exchanged gifts—food, tea, coffee, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. The truce also allowed for fallen soldiers on both sides to be brought back behind their lines for burial. There have been many stories told of soccer games played, free haircuts given, and one German juggler putting on an impromptu performance. Most accounts explained how both sides refrained from shooting at each other until the British troops were relieved and had left the front line.
The aspirations of the first Christmas—“Peace on earth and goodwill to all men”—and the aim of WWI—“the war to end all wars”—never fully materialized.
The two intentions have remained “but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained,” as Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia once famously said during his impassioned speech before the United Nations General Assembly in 1963.
Twenty-five years after the Great War, the world became embroiled in World War II. We’ve also had wars in Vietnam, Korea, the Falkland Islands, and Eastern Europe. Parts of Africa and the Middle East remain volatile, and this country has been involved in a war in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than ten years.
As we gear up for this Christmas season, the world is still contending with tensions between Israel and Palestine. The evening news relays the atrocities taking place in Syria, and we are kept abreast of the threat of conflict with Iran. It seems we are heading in the wrong direction.
But is peace achievable?
So far, mankind has failed miserably at this goal, but I believe that it is something that we are entirely capable of doing. The events of the Christmas truce clearly demonstrated that human beings have the capacity to express love for one another, even in the midst of the most horrible, macabre circumstances. When sworn enemies looked across the frozen space between the trenches on that misty Christmas morning in 1914, they did not see an object of their hatred. They saw someone like themselves, and that allowed them to relate and feel empathy.
I believe that is the key take away from Haile Selassie’s speech, which was later made into a song by international reggae superstar, Bob Marley. It is an ideal that we all should strive for—not only internationally but beginning at home, right in our communities and on the streets we live. Our vocabulary these days is so violent. We often hear talk about “the war on drugs,” “the war on poverty,” “the war on the middle class.” The list goes on. None of those “wars” have created the solutions we crave. That’s because those solutions cannot be created by force. It requires all of us to be more deeply and fully engaged. That we allow ourselves to be guided by values that include concerns for others—the poor and needy, those of different cultures and beliefs, or those whose lifestyle choices may be different from ours.
As Ghandi so eloquently stated, “We must be the change we wish to see in our world.”
Yes, I know I am asking a lot, but hope springs eternal. Everyone desires to be respected as a person, and each of us, I believe, is obligated to treat others respectfully. While we may often act in our own self-interest, we must guard against becoming so selfish and self-absorbed that we neglect to consider the need for others to pursue their own goals and dreams. We have a right to live our lives as we see fit and as great a responsibility to find common ground with others and not to dictate to them how they should live theirs. I believe that is a strong part of the message of that first Christmas. Others are not wrong, “less-than,” nor deserved to be clobbered over the head just because they are different from us or do not share our point of view. Narrow interests must give way to a broader understanding and compromise.
So, we can start by reaching into our humanity. Shun the tendency to only see others through the stereotypical prisms that exist, which requires kindness, empathy, and compassion. It requires that we adopt a mindset that allows us to appreciate the next person as someone with specific needs, desires, and interests. It compels us to step out into “no man’s land” (the way those enemy combatants did on the Western front) and see the world from the other person’s perspective and understand how they feel. It also suggests a sense of justice, and, as Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted, “There can be no peace without justice.”
So, as we sing songs, exchange gifts, and contemplate the meaning of “Peace on earth and goodwill to all men,” I leave you with lines from two of my favorite Christmas songs.
The first is from Stevie Wonder:
“Someday at Christmas there’ll be no wars
When we have learned what Christmas is for
When we have found what life’s really worth
There’ll be peace on earth”
And, the second, is from Jamaican artist Wayne Wonder:
“I wish for all mankind, a warm Jamaican Christmas time… I wish that we could find true love at Christmas time”
Keep On Pushing!
As an original member of the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team and captain of the 1992 and 1998 teams, three-time Olympian Devon Harris achieved his grand dream. His current dream is to inspire others to achieve theirs. Tapping the same energy, determination, and skills that enabled him to bobsled with the best in the world, Devon, as a motivational speaker, is now sparking audiences of all ages to dream big and take their “game” to the next level. For more inspiration from Devon, visit his website or check him out on Facebook and Twitter.
*Photo by Chickens in the Trees (vns2009).