It is, perhaps, the most enduring image from the Great War, the ‘war to end all wars’, unfortunately also known as the First World War. On Christmas Eve of 1914 spontaneous truces broke out all along the trench system that snaked through a sea of mud from the Belgian coast to Switzerland.
These truces reputedly involved 100,000 French, British and German soldiers and lasted for much of Christmas Day. The Germans were often the instigators, shouting greetings, singing carols and putting out Christmas trees. (Where they obtained fir trees in the deforested devastation of no-man’s-land has not been ascertained.) Similar truces occurred between Austro-Hungarian and Russian troops on the Eastern Front.
Soldiers shook hands, sang carols, exchanged gifts and played football. The scores are mostly unrecorded, although the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders reportedly beat an unidentified German side 4-1.
Gradually, the killing resumed. Captain Robert Miles, attached to the Royal Irish Rifles, recorded that the troops in his sector agreed with the Germans that not a shot would be fired until midnight on the 25th. Miles was killed on the 30th.
As the centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War in November 1918 approaches, the Christmas truces remain a beacon for peace in a world that remains obstinately resistant to goodwill to all mankind. But is there a more prosaic reason we love this story that refuses to go away? The 1914 Christmas truce even featured in the 2017 Dr Who Christmas special.
The Christmas season
A truce is cessation of hostilities. The threat to life and limb is, however briefly, removed. Isn’t this what happens in the Christmas season in general? From around Advent in early December we set aside the hurly-burly of market capitalism that pits everyone into ceaseless tooth-and-claw competition. Economically, we’re like those soldiers in the trenches. Our lives may not be at stake but our livelihoods are.
Economically, we’re like those soldiers in the trenches. Our lives may not be at stake but our livelihoods are.
During the Christmas season, the madness stops. Everyone chills out—except in the shopping centres. Unemployment falls as stores hire extra staff. Christmas bonuses are paid. There’s more money around, more goodwill. For a scant few weeks, the milk of human kindness flows more freely. Everyone wins.
Gradually, the goodwill fades. Staff hired to cope with the Christmas rush are summarily dispensed with. Residents bloated on mulled wine, Christmas cake and unnecessary presents grumble that the council is late to collect the excreta of consumerism littering the footpaths. We sharpen our capitalist fangs for the year ahead. It’s like the 1914 Christmas truce story all over again, except happening in terms of economic rather than military conflict, a higher turn on the spiral of humanity’s journey towards some form of sustainable sanity.
Isn’t it about time every season was Christmas season? Economically, of course—the over-eating would kill us all.