In a year that marks 100 years since the beginning of World War I, a good reflection for Christmas this year would be on something extraordinary that took place on the battlefields on Christmas Day 1914, the first Christmas since World War I began earlier that year.
On Christmas Eve, German soldiers around Ypres, Belgium, started decorating their trenches with Christmas decorations including candles and trees. They then started singing Christmas carols. In the opposing trenches, the British soldiers started singing Christmas carols too in response to them. The opposing trenches then started shouting Christmas greetings across to each other. Soldiers from both sides then emerged from their trenches, walked across the area between them and exchanged small gifts such as food, alcohol and other mementos such as buttons and hats. Soldiers who until that moment had been fighting each other now walked across the same space over which they had sprayed bullets in order to exchange Christmas greetings and gifts.
On the birthday of the Prince of Peace that year, the guns fell silent and an unofficial ceasefire had taken place and spread across to other battlefields across Europe. In all, an estimated 100,000 soldiers stopped fighting on that first Christmas Day of World War I. Amidst the violence and carnage since World War I began several months earlier, the celebration of Christmas brought peace to some of the battlefields. Even soccer matches were played and sometimes even between soldiers of opposing sides. In many places, the ceasefires continued until Christmas night and, in others, it continued right up to New Year’s Day.
Hostilities were resumed once the ceasefires ended and, the year after, the commanders of the armies ordered that there would be no ceasefires at Christmas again. While the soldiers went back to fighting against each other and the war continued, it did not take away that, for a brief moment, there was some peace across the battlefields of World War I on that first Christmas Day of The Great War. As one soldier wrote home in a letter “Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvelous, isn’t it?”
In our day, there can be raised the notion that religion does not bring peace nor freedom and that the removal of religion from the society would lead to greater peace and freedom. While religion has been a factor in a number of conflicts and wars, often it is politics and economics that are bigger and more significant causes. If anything, religion has often been exploited by some as an excuse rather than a reason for war and this, in itself, is a distortion of what religion is. True religion is about bringing true peace. The last century has also shown us on a large scale that disregarding God in itself does not necessarily lead to peace or freedom and, in some major cases, the total opposite.
One of the challenges Christmas sets before us is that of making room for Jesus Christ in our lives. Mary and Joseph had great difficulty to find a place for Jesus to be born and, in the end, had no option but a noisy, smelly barn with a feeding trough the only thing in which they could lay Jesus – a far cry from what would be an ideal setting for the Prince of Peace to be born in. Yet, from the simple stable and humble manger, peace radiated out in the middle of the darkness of night. The angels appeared to the shepherds in the field with the message “Glory to God in the highest and peace to people of goodwill!”
As followers of Christ, we are called to make more and more room for Christ in our lives particularly in the example of John the Baptist (a key figure in Advent) who said that he (John) had to decrease, so that Christ may increase. We need to let Christ into all facets of our lives even the darkest parts whether they are our sorrows, our sins, our stresses so that Christ may bring the light of hope, joy and peace even in the darkest aspects of our lives. By letting the light of Christ shine ever more brightly in our lives, Christ is able to bring hope, joy, peace and many other gifts to a world that is always in need of them even if it is not always conscious of its need for those things. Let us always make room for Christ and thereby become lights of hope, joy and peace for all.