Tommy and Fritz had been friends for a long time. They traveled to each other’s homes and learned each other’s languages. They shared many traditions and holidays. But in the years before 1914, the British, whom the Germans called “Tommy,” and the Germans, whom the British called “Fritz,” became enemies. That is, their leaders became enemies because of the political unrest of the day.
But it has almost always been the case in times of war, that the men in the trenches have a less developed sense of bitterness toward the opposing soldiers. As one man put it, “We hated them when they killed one of our friends, but mostly we just joked about them and I suppose they joked about us.” Regular men, sent far away from their homes, to fight for politicians and leaders who knew little about mud and blood: these were the soldiers of World War One.
So it really shouldn’t surprise us to hear that something very special happened in Belgium on December 24, 1914. The troops on both sides knew that it was Christmas. They missed their familes. They longed to sit around the fire, joking and laughing, eating the traditional foods of the season. Some of them even worked to have a sort of Christmas where they were. In fact, the British soldiers were puzzled to see strange lights popping up along the German lines. After some careful investigation, they realized that they were seeing Christmas trees. It wasn’t long before they heard singing.
The carols of Christmas are recognizable, no matter where you are and who is singing them. According to one of the men who was there that evening, one of the Germans shouted out for the British to sing with them. A Tommy shouted back, “We’d rather die than sing in German!” At that a Fritz responded, “It would kill us to hear you!” Pretty soon there was an exchange of shouted Christmas greetings.
Eventually, both sides realized what was happening. No one wanted to be there. They were under orders, but those orders could be set aside to remember something far more important. One soldier remembered it this way:
They finished their carol and we thought that we ought to retaliate in some way, so we sang ‘The first Noël’, and when we finished that they all began clapping; and then they struck up another favourite of theirs, ‘O Tannenbaum’. And so it went on. First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words ‘Adeste Fidéles’. And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.
The Germans and the English, joining their voices together in Latin to sing the familiar song that meant so much to both of them. The rest of that night was spent without bloodshed as soldiers jumped out of the trenches on both sides to bless the others. They exchanged food and gifts, tobacco and best wishes. The fighting would resume soon enough and both sides would be reprimanded by their superiors, but the Christmas truce really happened and, in Christ’s name, enemies came together as friends.
(I am particularly indebted to the book “Stories behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins which you can purchase here. These are not direct quotes, but a good deal of the information has come from that book, which I highly recommend. Some of the stories are from my research. The stories may or may not be accurate, partly because the legends have grown over the years, but I offer them as a word of blessing for the Christmas season.)