You might have read before about the Christmas truce of 1914, that impromptu gathering in the mud of Flanders’ No Man’s Land when German and British soldiers downed weapons and greeted each other as men, not enemies. For a few hours, the din of brutal battle was forgotten and the bond of common kinship rekindled over a shared smoke or a bit of prized grub saved for that special day.
The following year it was the turn of the Scots’ Guards when one of their company commanders agreed to a ceasefire which ended up with German soldiers dancing to the music of a Scot’s mouth organ.
The magic of Christmas does that to people. It’s a magic fostered by our memories of more innocent childhood times. I still remember that Christmas morning when I looked beneath my bed to see what Santa had left. There, waiting for me to play with was a fort… not just any fort, either. This one had the words ‘Fort Apache’ emblazoned over the front gates. The walls were painted blue and the roofs of the buildings inside were a glossy black.
Sentry towers stood in each corner and there was a corral for horses and some sort of shack – a goods store perhaps, or a jail. There were US cavalrymen brandishing pistols and rifles. Surrounding them, making silent blood-curdling cries were Apache warriors – tomahawks raised, about to rain down death blows on their enemies.
My heart caught in my throat. How could Santa possibly have known to choose such a perfect present. How could something so wonderful be delivered beneath my bed without my knowledge. I rushed downstairs to tell my parents.
My dad, a skilled woodworker, seemed to appreciate the way the wood had been shaped and cut, even somehow managing to point out details I had overlooked in the excitement of my discovery – like how a door opened to reveal a room within, and how there were ladders that cavalrymen could use to reach the battlements. Dad seemed very quick at spotting all these things, I thought.
For years after I would play with that wonderful fort. My heart wrenched when one of the towers eventually broke and the hinge on the gate gave way, but these were honourable wounds, inflicted by hours and hours of unfettered, joyous play.
The joy of Christmas is a much-needed blessing. We live in a hard and sometimes heartless world… a world where children drown in foreign seas while fleeing from their ravaged homelands; a world where the rich prevail and the ordinary worker clings on for dear life.
It’s a world where fear and anger are rampant. Parents look at depleted bank accounts and wonder with trepidation how they can support their families for another year… how they can keep the roof over their heads while the shadow of debt grows ever longer and ever darker.
We fear for our loved ones’ safety – from terror attacks, from predatory paedophiles, from drunken yobs. And when we don’t feel the fear, there’s always the anger to fall back on… anger at our governments for failing us, at our banks for exploiting us, and the justice system for ignoring us.
Then Christmas comes, and for many, the fear and the anger subside a notch, to be replaced by warmer, gentler thoughts.
Somehow, we become that little bit more thoughtful, have a greater awareness of those around us who are struggling more than we are. A glimmer of goodwill grows in our hearts as we plan homecomings, family get-togethers, and foresee the light of excitement in our children’s eyes on Christmas Eve night as they prepare for bed.
The presents help, too, of course. But it’s isn’t really about the gifts. The magic of Christmas lies in those tiny gestures that pass between us – the nods of understanding, the sense of unspoken kinship with our fellow beings as we make our preparations for the big day.
The thing is, though, the magic is there all year round, even in the harshest of times. Those Christmas truces in World War One weren’t the only cases of men showing kindness to one another.
Richard Van Emden’s book, Meeting The Enemy: The Human Face of the Great War, highlights some others particularly well.
For instance, in one French sector of the front taken over by the British, a note pinned to some barbed wire suggested both sides exchange newspapers. Prior to the arrival of the British, German officers had been in the habit of popping over of an evening for a game of bridge with their French counterparts. That, alas, was soon knocked on the head.
The treatment of prisoners of war was also quite civil. In one instance, a British officer – Captain Wilfred Birt – died of his wounds while in a hospital in Cologne. He was buried with full military honours in Cologne Cathedral at a service attended by British officers who were given safe passage back to their own lines after the funeral
However, it was fighter pilots who displayed the greatest chivalry. Downed enemy pilots were often invited for a meal in the German officers’ mess. The British reciprocated with equally thoughtful gestures. When the German ace Max Immelmann was killed, a British pilot dropped off a wreath and message of condolence on the late German’s airfield.
If we can show humanity in wartime, why can’t we do so more often in times of peace. The spark of magic that prompts such acts of empathy is in us all, but it is terribly fragile. Too often it is smothered by our rush-hour lives… bludgeoned by the daily grind.
Thankfully, it’s amplified come the middle of December, made more potent by the Nativity and the imminent arrival of Santa.
The man in the red suit brings more than a sack full of goodies when he comes calling. His imminent arrival brings expectation and excitement and a tingling effervescence. His real gift is in reinvigorating the dull glow that beats within us all, making us that little bit happier and turning the darkness that bit brighter.
Like those trench-line soldiers of World War One, we need to foster that Christmas glow and make it shine, but we need to do it the whole year round. We need to show its light to others, so that the magic spreads and the light of hope, happiness, fellowship – call it what you will – brightens all our days when the dark times threaten.
This year, play Santa yourself and bring some brightness into strangers’ lives. It doesn’t have to be with a present, a nod and a smile will work wonders, and will outlast many a gift found beneath the tree come Christmas morning.