Instead of the sharp edge of a bayonet, the two exchanged handshakes

By Josh Beavers

Exactly 108 years ago this Sunday, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and fourteen, a true Christmas miracle occurred on a frozen field.

The first world war had raged for six months. Young men from all over the globe came to die in the European mud. Everything they were and everything they would become was snuffed out like a candle in a hurricane on the orders of fat generals and fatter politicians.

The methods of persuasion that the Nazis would use to dehumanize others (and that our politicians have perfected in the year 2022) weren’t around in 1914. And when Christmas came “across the pond,” so too did the briefest of returns to humanity as men who didn’t even speak the same language found common ground in the shared meaning behind the words “goodwill toward men.”

The scene was one of ice-covered dirt. A razed forest. Trenches carved into the hard mud. Occasional echoes of dying men calling for aid, for relief, or maybe just for their mommas. The smell of smoke was thick in the cold December air, and crimson blood stained the wet ground. The shelling had stopped, and the area between the two fronts, the ones belonging to the Allies and the ones belonging to the Central Powers, had been hastily dug as each side huddled in the cold and awaited orders to venture once more into the no-man’s land and once more into the fight.

God seemed to have left that part of the world long ago.

That is until December 25, 1914. Somehow, some way, the Spirit of the Season transcended the violence of a war that brought out the worst of us. There was no planning. The most beautiful events in human history are rarely planned. Planning eliminates much of the humanity that makes miracles happen.

Makeshift Christmas trees were raised. Garland was hung on barbed wire. Christmas songs replaced the sounds of gunfire. French voices were joined by German and English as “Silent Night” reminded them all of their shared humanity. The no-man’s land between the two sides was crossed. Each side heard the other’s singing, and then one unnamed soldier walked into the firing range with a white flag waving in a show of peace. He could have been shot. But the possibility of dying wasn’t enough to dissuade him from his mission. He was greeted by a similarly brave soldier from the other side. Instead of the sharp edge of a bayonet, the two exchanged handshakes.

It was a brief respite from the hell that was their lives. The trenches emptied, and the two sides gave each other hugs as they celebrated a unifying holiday of humanity. They exchanged small gifts like tobacco and candy and pocket knives and a little bit of alcohol. A friendly game of football (soccer to us Americans) was played.

There were pictures from home shared with men from other countries.

“This is my wife.”

“This is my mother.”

“This is my home where life is good.”

And as they sang songs and shared slices of their culture, the men saw each other as equals and not enemies. They were flesh and blood and not cold-blooded monsters. The limited propaganda of the time failed miserably to drive a wedge of hate through the festive scene.

But, as all good things do, the time of peace came to an end. Goodbyes were said, and both sides reluctantly fell back into their pits. Soon thereafter, the war returned.

The fighting continued and upwards of 40 million died over the next three and a half years. But there were reports that men who took part in the great Christmas Truce of 1914 were forever changed. There were many accounts of those men missing the shots they took in battle. After all, the men on the other side weren’t evil. Far from it. They were just men who were put in the most horrible situation on earth and were doing what they could to survive.

Nothing has changed to this day. Politicians profit. Soldiers die. To ensure this, there was a prohibition on any such Christmas Truce becoming an annual tradition.

But history remembers that peace reigned for one moment during one of the bloodiest periods in human history.

And so, as we sit warm, putting together presents for little ones who mercifully know not the scourge of the terrible wars that claimed the lives of so many sons, raise a glass to those who fought. To those that died, and those that returned and raised a new generation. Raise a glass to the ones who sacrificed in the senseless slaughters after. May the lessons they taught not be forgotten and may those that celebrate today appreciate how good we have it, however bleak and pointless it may seem sometimes. 

And as we spend time with those closest to us on this day, remember that even the bitterest of foes are indeed people with their own unique hopes and dreams and fears. Be kind beyond this day. Try to overcome our human biases, prejudices, and anger. Life is finite. We can be better.

Let the same Christmas magic find its way into the hearts of men, and the pointless lines that divide us be banished, if only for a little while, as we celebrate Christmas. Peace on Earth, and goodwill towards men.

(Josh Beavers is a teacher and a writer. He has been recognized five times for excellence in opinion writing by the Louisiana Press Association.)