Christmas holiday imagery swirls with scenes of caroling, gift exchanges, decorated trees and church services paying homage to the infant Jesus, whose advent was to initiate Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men.
And now for something completely different…
Or is it?
World War I, the so-called “Great War,” has gradually receded from our collective consciousness. Today only a handful of its veterans remain alive. This “War to End All Wars” failed miserably to meet that goal and consumed over 20 million lives in the process. The Western Front – a battle line stretching 440 miles from the Swiss border to the North Sea – quickly bogged down into horrific, stalemated trench warfare.
But in December, 1914, the war was only five months old and most of the carnage would come later. The 2005 French film Joyeux Noel depicts a real and remarkable event that took place along the dividing line between German forces and the Allies - in this case, French and Scottish regiments.
On Christmas Eve there was a spontaneous cease-fire.
We first see the three regiments hunkered down in their trenches when a Scottish bagpiper starts to play I’m Dreaming of Home. Soon the men surrounding him begin singing along. The other soldiers can hear the music from across the battlefield and enough English is understood that the sentiment is clear.
Then, from the German side comes a response. Headquarters has sent the troops small Christmas trees with candles. One of the soldiers, a professional singer before the war, begins an a capella rendition of Stile Nacht (Silent Night). By the second verse the Scottish bagpiper adds accompaniment.
Heavenly peace, like the falling snow, is beginning to cover and transform the devastated landscape. The singer takes one of the small trees in hand and dangerously climbs into the open, still singing. Now every eye is riveted on him. One by one, the soldiers emerge from cover and sit exposed and unprotected to hear the words of peace they so desperately wish would envelop their world. When the carol finishes there is silence.
The bagpiper begins to play once again – Adeste Fideles. Four bars … and he stops, waiting for the German to respond. The singer begins the carol. The Scot resumes his accompaniment, and a truce of God is born.
When the song ends, the three commanding officers slowly come forward to meet. They agree to a 24-hour respite from battle. Each regiment is then able to remove and bury their dead. Men from opposing armies begin conversing. Some share photos and exchange small presents. Though they were born in separate countries, speak different languages and have different traditions, their common humanity transcends all those differences.
The German and French commanders talk with each other about their lives before the war. We learn that the German officer’s wife is French and they spent their honeymoon in a hotel in Paris, not far from where the French commander once lived.
The French officer’s wife is now living with her parents just a few miles from where they stand—on French soil but behind German lines. They cannot communicate. She was due to have her baby by now, but he has no news.
A spontaneous, spirited football (soccer) match breaks out on the battlefield.
Finally, as night falls, the Scottish bagpiper, who is also a chaplain and Catholic priest, holds a Christmas mass. All the men stand together in no-man’s land to receive a Christmas blessing. All around, the soldiers’ exterior roles are melting away revealing their inner humanness.
So how do you resume killing people you have just played with and prayed with?
There is more, much more, to the film than there is space or necessity to relate here. And of course such a truce could only be momentary. The generals and politicians have promises to keep, and millions more to kill before they sleep. The trenches cannot be allowed to fill up with peace.
The scandalous interlude is, of course, discovered and there are repercussions. The German soldiers are disciplined, and then reassigned to the Eastern Front. After refusing to continue fighting, the French and Scottish regiments are also moved elsewhere so the enemy they face can once again be anonymous.
Finally, in a heavy-handed and overtly moralizing coda at the end of the film, the Scottish priest is defrocked and his superior preaches to new recruits telling them that the ‘Hun’ is sub-human and not like us.
Of course, all of the real actors of this story are now long dead. A filmmaker researches and salvages a small story of hope from the midst of a great and terrible war. We see images and learn history, but the deeper take-away (I think) is that if we ever leave our ideological foxholes and go out to actually meet the presumed enemy, then it becomes extraordinarily difficult to return and resume shooting.
People in general and Christians more specifically have, throughout history, marginalized whole classes of people. Christians conjured up theology, like war rhetoric, to persecute Jews, war against Islam, and most recently, to demonize homosexuality.
One can have theological differences without objectifying the ‘opposition’. We are all too willing to morph our neighbor from a “Thou” to an “It,” and frequently do so while occupying the self-perceived moral high ground.
If there ever were such an ontological “Thou—It” gap, it would not separate the Germans and the Allies or the Christians and Muslims. It would separate Us from God.
Can we remain in our dirty, cramped foxholes surrounded by death now that God has crossed no-man’s land to show us what he is really like? God took that first step in a manger in Bethlehem to initiate Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men.
Joyeux Noel, indeed!