Alfred Anderson was 109 when he passed away on November 21, 2005 in Scotland. He had stated for years that he wanted to die shot in bed by a jealous lover, but in the end, he died in his sleep. Probably because he was 109 years old. His obituary was published by the Associated Press in the New York Times, the LA Times, and all across the United Kingdom. Alfred’s obituary was published not because he lived to be a 109. It was not because he was a soldier in the Black Watch regiment during WWI. Or that during the war, he served as the valet to the Queen’s brother who served as a Captain. Nor was it because Alfred was later wounded during a battle in France and later awarded the Legion of Honor, one of the highest medals of Honor one could receive. While an accomplished and beloved man, Alfred’s death was noted around the world not for any one of these items, but because he was the last surviving soldier from the Christmas Truce of 1914.
In December of 1914, along a 500 mile stretch on the border of France and Flanders, German and British soldiers were embattled in hard fighting. The war had begun in August yet many thought it would be over by the time Christmas arrived. The Pope had even asked for a truce, but military ranks on either side were against it and threatened anyone who participated in a truce with charges of treason. The stories vary on how the Christmas Truce began, however, a common one told is that the German soldiers had received gifts from home, including tiny Christmas trees which they decorated their trenches with. As darkness came on Christmas Eve, German soldiers began singing Christmas carols in their native language. Recognizing the tunes, the British soldiers joined in, mirroring the tunes in English. Eventually, each side along that 500 mile stretch climbed out of their trenches. Standing among the lines of barb wire in an area called ‘No Man’s Land’, both sides met in the middle, shook hands, and wished each other a Merry Christmas. Some groups began playing games of soccer. They exchanged medals and hats, including those infamous German hats with the spikes on top. They even exchanged addresses and kept in touch after the war ended, years later. All along those 500 miles, there were many Christmas Truces. Some lasted just a couple of days, and others going into early January.
The first song rumored to be sung by soldiers that fateful evening was ‘Silent Night’. This year commemorates the 200th Anniversary of the song. Written in 1816 by Friar Mohr of Austria, it was performed for a children’s Christmas Eve program at – of all place – St. Nicholas church. Sadly, the church was torn down many years ago. A memorial chapel has been built on the site and each Christmas Eve, the song is celebrated there. The song has been translated into 300 languages and there is even a Silent Night Association which serves as a clearinghouse for information on the song and worldwide news related to it.
In all likelihood, the first Christmas was not a silent one. As we know, the city was crowded with people there for the census. A baby was being born, and from what I have heard about childbirth, it is not a silent affair. An angelic choir came to the shepherds that night and the nativity scene includes animals in the inn’s stable, neither of which are quiet groups. Even today’s Christmas celebrations are not often silent. The malls are bustling with shoppers and lines for Santa. Our radios are blasting ‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’. On Christmas morning, children are ripping open their presents and playing with their toys or the boxes they came in. No, that first Christmas was probably not a silent night. However, the key to the song is in the second phrase – “Holy Night”. Because, when in the presence of holiness, we are SILENT. The birth of Jesus was silent, because it was HOLY. When we take time to listen for the silence, we will find it in the words of this treasured Christmas song: “Holy infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace.”
‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ was yet another song sung during the Christmas Truce of 1914. Written by Bishop Brooks of Philadelphia in 1867 after returning from a trip to the Holy Land, it describes how he imagined the town of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth. In it, Bishop Brooks describes how Jesus came into the world quietly with not many knowing about his birth. By today’s standards, Jesus came in extremely quiet. The only publicity of Jesus’ birth was the angels’ announcement to the shepherds. There was no gender reveal party with Mary and Joseph cutting a cake and opening it to find blue filling. God did not make a Facebook post of the sonogram and captioned it with, “It’s a boy!” And the only baby shower Mary probably had was her visit with Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother, and the two of them trying to one up each other with miracle baby stories. No, Jesus did not arrive with the pomp and circumstance of a King. Other than flipping over tables in the temple, Jesus operated quietly during his life, and this is still how he enters us – quietly.
Each year in the carol we sing, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” The ‘thee’ is Jesus. Jesus was the long awaited Messiah. His coming had been promised to Adam and Eve. His birth was foretold by the prophets for centuries. Jesus came in quietly to right the wrongs. He died so we could be forgiven. And he died so we could live. John 14:18-23 reads, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while, the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
The Christmas Truce of 1914 happened for one reason. Because of one shared tradition. The tradition of Christmas. My friends, if German and British soldiers can have a Christmas Truce in the middle of a World War, then you can call a Christmas truce too. Whether it be with your neighbor, your coworker, your in-laws, your ex-spouse, or your siblings. There are enough battles happening in this world without us adding more.
This is an abridged version of a devotional I gave at Keysville Lutheran Church’s Ladies Retreat last month. It was a pleasure and an honor to do so. Happy Christmas!
“O Little Town of Bethlehem”, http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com
Alfred Anderson, The New York Times, November 22, 2005.
Silent Night, Holy Night, http://www.theologyofwork.org
Silent Night: The little carol that could, Post Gazette, December 24, 2006.
The Spirit of the 1914 Christmas Truce, The Wall Street Journal, December 19, 2014.
The Story of the WWI Christmas Truce, http://www.smithsonianmag.com