Every Christmas we pause and reflect on the year that has passed and consider the year that is to come. 2013 is a particularly poignant year, both personally and historically, and so I offer this brief post as one way of reflecting on it. Last Christmas I spent on the dole and I barely celebrated at all; it seemed like an ‘anyday’, little different from the ones that had gone before. Indeed, I had to log on to the government’s computer system and register some attempt at job-seeking – no rest for those caught up in the latest demonization of the unemployed. This Christmas, however, I go to spend time with my family after spending several rewarding months teaching at the University of Huddersfield. 2014 continues that reward. It also brings to mind a rather different time.
99 years ago, in the frozen mud and winter chills of Northern France and Belgium, soldiers from across Britain, the British Empire, Belgium, France, and Germany, settled into the trenches for the first Christmas of the Great War. By December 1914, the war had taken on the features familiar to us from a thousand different sources: trenches, mud, and immobility. Separated by mere yards of ‘no man’s land’, the belligerent armies came to realise that the war was not going to be over by Christmas and that there may be many more Christmases still to pass on the western front. After months of hard fighting, Christmas offered a brief respite and, most remarkable of all, the Christmas Truce. Men left their trenches to ‘fraternize’ in no-man’s land, to bury the dead, to sing carols, and to play a few games of football. If the appeals by American charities and politicians for peace went unheeded by governments and generals in Europe, the echoes of those pleas were heard by the ordinary soldiers up and down the line.
The most poignant stories of that Christmas Truce of 1914 relate to the singing of carols. Many of us have a favourite Christmas carol or popular song that cheers our hearts or makes us stop and think for a moment. It could be Jingle Bells, the Herefordshire Carol, Walking in the Air, Fairytale of New York, or even the Cliff Richard one that dare not speak its name! Mine is that Austrian gift to the world: Stille Nacht. Written in 1816, it is known in the English-speaking world as Silent Night and to Francophones as Douce Nuit. The carol has a particular place in the Christmas festivities of many nations, indeed so central was it by the time of the Great War that it was one of those carols that unified every soldier, irrespective of which language they spoke, along with O Come All Ye Faithful. It’s encapsulated in this scene from the film Joyeux Noël:
At home, life was inevitably tinged with sadness. In West Yorkshire, for instance, on Christmas Eve, the Halifax Courier remarked that ‘we can scarcely anticipate that this Christmas will be a happy one. It is too sadly associated with the gloom of war and the losses of bread-winners, stricken down on the fields of battle, or in actions at sea’. Recruitment levels, the paper reflected, had ‘probably been interfered with for the time being’ but that Christmas spirit failed to stop nearly 100 men volunteering to serve in the last five days of Advent. In Manchester, fear that men were putting off volunteering was strong enough that the city’s Lord Mayor made a deliberate appeal at Gorton Town Hall on 21 December. ‘Even if they joined at once’, he remarked, ‘they would be allowed to stay at home, and yet receive their pay, until the holidays were over’. 35 men swallowed the mayor’s advice and signed up.
As for the people of Brecon, in Mid Wales, the discussion was more about whether it was fair to celebrate Christmas at all. ‘Is it right to make merry over Christmas?’ pondered the Brecon County Times on Christmas Eve, before coming to the conclusion that:
Whatever our Christmas has been in the past, let it be a more unselfish one this year, more characterised by love and sympathy and goodwill for others and by those practical deeds of charity which are the test of our sincerity of our feelings […] So thinking, we do not hesitate to wish the general body of our readers a “Happy Christmas” being sure that those of them who sorrow will not in their grief selfishly begrudge to others the happiness they cannot know. For these suffering ones and for us all we trust that the dawn of the New Year will be the herald of better times.
Words that ring true nearly 100 years later.
Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda i chi gyd!