Posts Tagged ‘Sainte Nuit’

Copyright 2014, Susan DeLay

A foxhole is a terrible place to spend the holidays. But on Christmas Eve, 1914 in Flanders, Belgium it was especially miserable. The temperatures dropped below freezing, even in the mud. It was the first year of World War I and the players were Germany versus the Allies: Britain, France, Scotland. (The U.S. would not join in until 1917.)

In both camps, troops started fires in an effort to keep warm. Then the British noticed something odd—an unusual amount of light generating from behind the German lines. 

A Curious Christmas

Curious, the British soldiers peeked out from their trenches to see what was the matter. The Germans were lighting candles and raising them up on the bayonets of their weapons.  The enemy was clearly visible—a prime target. British sentries held binoculars to their eyes and observed a few of the German soldiers holding small Christmas trees illuminated by candles tucked into the branches. (This was before the government had passed strict regulations prohibiting the use of open flames on Christmas trees. But back then, electricity was in its infancy, so there weren’t many strands of electric lights.)

Weapons drawn, the stunned British troops held their fire and studied the men they’d been shooting at for months. It appeared that the Germans, who celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, were sending an invitation to their enemy: Just for tonight, let’s call a truce. And while we’re at it, why not celebrate the birth of the Christ child–together.  Then we can get back to the business of killing each other.

Sainte Nuit. Belle Nuit.

The Germans began singing Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. The words were unfamiliar, but the Allies immediately recognized the melody.  Silent Night. Holy Night.  Sainte Nuit. Belle Nuit

Gradually, the Allies started to sing along—in English. In French. In Scottish–which is actually English, but instead of “mother and child,” it’s “mammy and bairn.” So, on a battleground in the middle of a war zone, both sides sang together about a holy night almost two thousand years earlier when all was calm and all was bright. 

History calls it the Christmas Truce.

But wait.  It gets better.  

Beer, Buttons and Football

Still singing, soldiers on both sides set their weapons aside, crawled out of their trenches and, hands held over their heads, they stepped onto the muddy no man’s land, cautiously venturing toward each other. 

Then they did what guys do when they get together to hang out. They drank beer. Fortunately, the Germans had plenty and the Brits were grateful. They’d been sucking down French beer, which in their eyes wasn’t fit for human consumption. Everyone knows the French do wine really well, but beer should be left to the experts, who just happen to be German. 

As every second-grader knows, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a gift exchange. The enemies began giving each other whatever small gifts they had to offer—bits of chocolate bars, tobacco, tins of potted meat, even buttons. (Hey, it’s the thought that counts.)

Before long, the men settled around their campfires to sing, swap war stories as best they could what with the language barrier, and share snapshots of their families. The ground between two fox holes became the playing field for a pick-up game of football, which in that corner of the world is soccer. 

Generals hate when that happens. Get to know your enemy, and the next thing you know, you just can’t bring yourself to fire a bullet between his eyes.

Back to Our Regular Program

No one was foolish enough to think that a battlefield truce would end the war. On December 26, the war would resume and everyone would get back to the ugly business of killing, wounding, and maiming. The war would last four long years before an official truce was signed. But on that Christmas Eve more than 100 years ago, these men took it upon themselves to insert a silent night between the non-stop cannon blasts and artillery fire. 

For one night, mortal enemies proved the peace of Christmas was stronger than the hatred and destruction of war. 

It’s amazing what a little silent night can do. 




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