“And in despair I bowed my head
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said
‘For hate is strong.
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!’”
It was 1863. The United States of America was caught up in bloody conflict that threatened to tear apart the republic – neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother – as the Union and the Confederacy fought for control.
As he sat at his desk on Christmas Day, he didn’t have much to be happy about. His son Charles had gone off to war without his blessing and been severely – thankfully, not mortally – wounded a month earlier. In 1861, he’d lost his second wife when she was burned in an accidental fire and never recovered.
He had fame – he was a much beloved poet – with acclaim both in the United States and abroad. But in his mid-50s, sitting at his desk, pen scratching over paper, you can hear the exhaustion in his verse. The happy sounds of church bells tolling Christmas cheer weren’t delivering for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow this year.
“Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
“It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Fast-forward 50 years and the European continent is engulfed in war. World War I was a ghastly affair. As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, “the war was virtually unprecedented in the slaughter, carnage, and destruction it caused.”
Under bleak, gray skies soldiers huddled at the bottom of trenches dug across the Western Front. Forced by heavy artillery to “dig in,” these soldiers – numbering in the mill-ons – suffered immeasurably under cold rains and snow. Weather, machine guns and mustard gas – it was called “the Great War,” but probably not by those who experienced it shivering in the trenches.
But misery, as they say, loves company. And as the weeks dragged into months and autumn into winter of 1914, the troops were thinking wistfully of home, of their loved ones gathered for the holidays. It was wartime, so the celebrations were likely muted.
You’ve probably heard the story of how on or about Christmas Day that year, British and German troops along the line waved a temporary flag of truce. The guns stilled, the fighting ceased, and one-by-one soldiers popped up out of the trenches, crossing no-man’s land, and shaking hands with their enemies.
Cigarettes changed hands. I imagine a flask or bottle may have been shared around the circle. The stories you find about these times include a soldier who set up an impromptu barber shop, while others swapped items as souvenirs. And there was singing. After all, it was Christmas – Frohe Weihnachten! – albeit not very merry.
Nearly 100,000 soldiers reportedly took part in this first Christmas truce. Alas, it was not to last. The fighting resumed and would go on for four vicious years. There was little support for fraternizing with the enemy, and so future battlefield truces did not match this first one – a time when soldiers saw beyond the flags and uniforms that defined their enemies and recognized themselves in their opponents.
It was a respite, a moment of temporary peace and an opportunity for shared good will. In inhumane circumstances it was a brief opportunity to reclaim their humanity, and they took it.
Longfellow must have felt a similar stirring – that in all circumstances there is a chance, a possibility for peace – as he labored over the final passage of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” for, with an appeal to the divine, he writes:
“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.’”
My best wishes to you and your families as many AAPG members around the world celebrate holidays this month. And as this difficult year draws to a close, I hope that you find a measure of peace.
Amid the uncertainty that we are grappling with today and that lies ahead in 2021, amid the confusion and division that surrounds us, let’s take this opportunity to reclaim our humanity. Let’s seek opportunities to be agents of peace and to spread good will in a chaotic world.