Not exactly in the holiday spirit? I know how you feel. It’s tough sometimes to jumpstart your heart and thaw the ice that seeps into our lives like water on cracked pavement. Holidays are tough financially, emotionally and geographically.
People you want to see are a thousand miles away and the ones you can’t stand are sitting across from you at the table taking the last piece of pie. But ice melts and I can prove it. I’m reaching into my bag of tricks and pulling out a miracle just for you today. This tale I tell is the real deal, cross my heart or hope to eat Aunt Fanny’s fruit cake.
It’s the story of Tommy and Fritz. These two didn’t get along. I’m not talking about a couple of guys arguing, I mean they hated each other. They tried to kill each other every single day. So deep was the disdain that each of them dug a trench, hid their gun in the mud and shadows, and whenever they caught sight of the other opened fire without hesitation. This went on for several months when the two of them realized something. It was Christmas Eve. While each was from very different homes and upbringings, both of them shared a belief that of all the days on the calendar this one was sacred. Perhaps they would stop fighting… just for a little while.
Tommy and Fritz were the nicknames of British and German soldiers during World War One. The trenches they sat in were in a region of Belgium known as ‘Flanders’, what the world knew as “The Western Front”. Millions of soldiers on both sides would die in that frozen muck and madness. But not on December 24th, 1914.
It’s amazing what happened that night because just days earlier the Generals on both sides told Pope Benedict XV that it was ‘impossible’ to order a cease-fire for 24 hours at Christmas. With all due respect to God, this was war, the fighting would continue and The Almighty would have to get over it. Indeed. The soldiers had a different plan.
That Christmas Eve, as darkness fell, the gunfire stopped and the night went silent. Then in the distance, the British soldier heard something familiar and comforting carry itself from the enemy’s trench to his. Someone was singing, “Stille nacht, heilige nacht.” It was a German soldier looking up at the stars from this horrible place and singing ‘Silent Night’. Both sides in this war sat still for a moment and listened. When he was done, a British soldier without hesitation sang back, ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’. Soon, the German’s raised up a handful of small pine trees they had fashioned into Christmas trees adorned with candle light so the British could see them. The Brits responded with candles of their own. Then a sign went up on the German side with six capitalized words that give me chills as I write this: YOU NO FIGHT, WE NO FIGHT. Not 60 feet away in the British trench rose a makeshift banner with their own response: MERRY CHRISTMAS.
The soldiers soon put down their weapons, left their trenches and met in the middle where they shook hands and exchanged tobacco, food, even the buttons off their jackets as gifts. One of the Brits had a soccer ball, and on that very field where so many had died, they played and laughed and forgot. The Christmas Day Miracle would last only a day; then the fighting and the war continued for another four years. Millions more would die but not on that field, on that day, in 1914.
World War One was started because of a single grave insult. An Archduke of Austria was assassinated so his country invaded Serbia. The Russians went after Austria, the Germans after Russia, France and Britain jumped in, the rest of the world followed and a horrible war was born. More than 16 million died as a result of one death.
I mention this because the turmoil in our own lives is often the result of one grave insult. Things are said that shouldn’t be said, and then the talking stops. If our friends on the fields of Flanders taught the world anything that cold December day, it’s that life is about choices and we can be the people we choose to be. If you’re looking for an excuse to pick up the phone and patch up a difference with someone you once loved and still love, why not now? Blame it on the holidays if you like. Of course, you don’t have to wait until December 24th to put down your weapon.
A Scottish poet named Frederick Niven wrote a short tribute to the story I’ve just shared with you. As we wage our own personal wars at home, and have so many brave loved ones fighting a real war half a world away, I wish you the happiest of holidays and leave you with Niven’s simple dream:
“O ye who read this truthful rhyme
From Flanders kneel and say
God speed the time when every day
Shall be as Christmas Day.”