December 15, 2008

Christmas at Wartime
by Pastor George Van Alstine

There is a heartwarming story that comes out of World War I’s worst days. As Christmas Day dawned in 1915, German and English troops were dug in on the Western Front struggling in a bloody, dirty war of attrition. In the afternoon, some German troops from Saxony laid down their rifles and crawled into the no-man’s land between the forces. They spread out food for their Christmas “feast” and began singing Christmas carols.

The English troops didn’t understand the words, but the tunes were familiar to them. Soon they were singing along in their own language. Reportedly, some of the English troops actually joined the Germans in the no-man’s land and shared their food. The officers on both sides stepped in and ended this fraternization between solders who, the day before and the day after, were bent on killing each other. The spirit of Christmas had, for a time, overcome the sense of national enmity the two armies had toward each other.

The Christmas Day Battle of Trenton was pivotal in the American Revolutionary War. Things looked bleak in December of 1776, and General Washington’s leadership of the troops was in jeopardy. Many of us are aware of the winning strategy Washington settled on—to attack the mercenary Hessian troops while they were celebrating their Christmas holiday. Totally unprepared for this audacious move on the day that commemorated Jesus’ birth, the Hessians were defeated, and the tide of the war was turned.

What I had never realized before recently rereading the events of that attack was that the Americans were successful also because they didn’t celebrate Christmas. The Puritans refused to treat that day as more important than the Sabbath. They also argued that the actual birthday of Jesus was unknown, and that December 25 was originally a pagan holiday. The Puritan influence was still strong in the Colonies, and Christmas Day was not treated as a holiday, except by some recent European immigrants. So the American army was free to treat this as any other fighting day. Ironically, it’s quite possible that the first Christmas tree in America was set up by those Hessians and also quite possible that it was destroyed by the attacking American soldiers.

I don’t know what point to make of all this, except that we should be careful not to promote our way of celebrating Christmas as the only way; that we should not defend to the death any particular Christmas tradition. The enigmatic Baby in the manger is the only unchangeable Christmas truth. Only he can bring “Peace on earth.”