Listening hearts embrace First World War Christmas Truce

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, December 21, 2011

“The cannons rested silent . . . / As Christmas brought us respite from the war.”

So wrote John McCutcheon in “Christmas in the Trenches,” a ballad movingly sung by John McDermott in his album Danny Boy, and a fitting climax to several conversations I’ve had recently on the peace-making power of heartfelt listening.

The song celebrates, of course, that now-legendary Christmas Truce that broke out spontaneously among trench-weary combatants along the Western Front in Belgium and France in December 1914, in the early months of the First World War.

“I was lying with my mess mates on the cold and rocky ground / When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound,” recounts the narrator in the ballad, a lad from Liverpool, upon hearing German soldiers singing Christmas carols from across No Man’s Land, the mere hundreds of metres that separated the opposing sides.

The cannons went silent, while refrains from “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”) filled the air. Adversaries sang in harmony. A solitary figure waving a white cloth stepped cautiously into No Man’s Land.

“His truce flag like a Christmas star shone on the plain so bright / As he bravely trudged unarmed into the night.”

Soon all came out of their trenches “with neither gun nor bayonet,” risking extreme vulnerability for the sake of transparent goodwill.

They shared their stashes of brandy, candy, and cigarettes. They brought out family photos, engaged each other in games of soccer. And to the music of squeeze box and violin, “this curious and unlikely band of men” wished each other well that Christmas Eve.

Sadly, daylight brought with it a return to the trenches of war and death.

“But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night / Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”

For composer and University of Calgary professor Allan Bell, this episode of humanity at its best speaks volumes about the power of listening hearts.

While waiting in line at Cochrane Coffee Traders last week, we got to chatting about listening.  

“Listening is transformative,” he said. “To really listen may require us to make changes.”

To illustrate his point, he referred to the Christmas Truce. Here were warriors who chose to really listen to the songs in each other’s heart that holy night, he said, and they were transformed – for a while, at least.

“How about writing your Christmas column about this?” he asked. And lawyer Richard Fercho, my coffee companion at a nearby table with whom I’d been discussing the beauty of listening, agreed. And so I am.

When I later described this conversation to U of C religious studies professor Anne Moore, of Cochrane, she directed me to Christian Carion’s award-winning 2005 French film Joyeux Noël, “Merry Christmas.”

Carion depicts the Christmas Truce through the eyes of French, Scottish and German soldiers, and provides a powerful visual and dramatic counterpart to McCutcheon’s ballad.

An important figure for me in the film is Palmer, a Scottish priest who also served as a stretcher-bearer at the front.

Moved by the peace that took over the battlefield that night and continued into Christmas Day, Father Palmer celebrated Mass for all those gathered in No Man’s Land – Scottish, French and German alike.

This didn’t sit well with his bishop, who some time later arrived at the front to chastise his misguided priest.

But Palmer responds: “I sincerely believe our Lord Jesus Christ came to me in what was the most important Mass of my life. I tried to be true to His trust and carry His message to all, whoever they may be.”

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about lessons from the Christmas Truce in the light of current world events – and in particular, in the light of escalating global inter-religious tensions.

This has been driven home for me personally through my participation in two area interfaith dialogue groups, the Calgary Council of Christians and Jews, and Abraham’s Tent (a roundtable of representatives of the four Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Baha’i).

At the last meeting of Abraham’s Tent, our differences of opinion in certain areas were obvious. Nevertheless, at the end of the evening Calgary rabbi Howard Vos-Altman concluded our time together in prayer with these words:

“Thank you, God, for our common humanity.”

Yes! And in truly listening to the songs of our common humanity, we, too, can find respite from our wars in the spirit of “peace on earth among people of goodwill.”

Merry Christmas!


© 2011 Warren Harbeck

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