A Christmas Truce

Published 4:13 pm Thursday, December 21, 2017

It came upon a midnight clear … on Christmas Eve in 1914 after five months of bloody combat in World War I. And it was miraculous. On that bitterly cold, “beautiful moonlight night, white almost everywhere” on the Western front, thousands of German, French, British, and Belgian soldiers spontaneously put down their weapons, walked across a no-man’s land littered with frozen, silhouetted bodies of dead comrades and embraced each other.  On Christmas day and briefly afterward, warring soldiers exchanged gifts of chocolates, food, buttons, and liquor. A bright shining moment of peace and joy, that temporary truce did not last nor did peace reign. After almost four more years of war, perhaps 15 million had died and countless more wounded and displaced.       

Although accounts and reports differ, it perhaps began with a Christmas carol sung by a German soldier, a former member of the Berlin opera, who, helmetless and weaponless, magically stepped out of his trench and walked toward British lines singing Stille nacht, heilige nacht. A British tenor soon joined in joyous harmony.  Graham Williams, a British soldier, wrote that “First, the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until … we started up O Come All Ye Faithful and the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fidelis. That miraculous, magical event became the stuff of legends, books, stories, and plays even as that horrific war has receded in memory.

In America today we seem to be at war with ourselves, a nation divided and as tribal, nativist, misogynistic, and inwardly parochial and outwardly nationalistic, every bit or more than Europeans in 1914. Ours is a nation in disharmony, devoid of “domestic tranquility.” The idea that something is wrong with America permeates and percolates throughout society, baffling and frustrating to most.

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We grudgingly bestow only the most meager benefits to the needy, have a mind-numbing enigma of a tax code, talk incessantly about the middle and wealthy classes as if the poorest do not exist, have a Congress that can’t keep government funded or pass laws, fight endless multi-trillion dollar wars on credit to be paid by our children, can’t figure out what to do with immigrants, drive for Christmas visits on decaying highways, and have a media industry so parochial and insular you wouldn’t even know that, unless there was a terrorist attack or a nuclear explosion, the rest of the world existed. 

Do I understand how complicated all these and other problems are? Who doesn’t? For example, what to do about gun violence? Is it simply a matter of passing a few laws or reverently nodding to the Second Amendment? Of course not. You have to examine and weigh the interconnected problems of mass shootings, gun safety counseling, mental health disorders, substance abuse, murders, homicides, shootings, and a culture that exposes all to violence through games, movies, and entertainment.

Yet it does bother me that suicide rates are the highest in over thirty years, that 121 Americans will kill themselves on Christmas and every other day, white men more than any, far too many veterans, men 3.5 times as much as women who seem to be catching up, and that firearms are the main culprit. We should be more at peace and hate ourselves less.

Still, this Christmas season perhaps we spontaneously should call a truce on worrying about America and attacking our perceived enemies. Let’s not war on Trump or liberals or any group that isn’t “us.” Instead, let’s joyously sing Silent Night, Holy Night or Noche Silenciosa, Santa Noche and wish all a Feliz Navidad or Merry Christmas and reach out to those estranged from us. We perhaps can have two miracles for Christmas this year instead of that blessed one.         

Milton Ready, Tryon, N.C.