War is a terrible thing. Historians agree that one of the deadliest conflicts in human history was World War I, which raged from July 28, 1914, to November 11, 1918, and claimed more than more than 16 million lives. It was the first “modern” war, using mechanized tanks with powerful artillery, airplanes, machine guns, and poison gas. Worst of all for soldiers was the trench warfare, where troops shot at each other from hundreds of miles of deep trenches dug into the ground. Life in the muck and disease-filled trenches was miserable. To leave one’s trench was to risk being shot and killed. The distance between the opposing trenches was known as “No Man’s Land,” and littered with dead soldiers.
On Christmas Eve, 1914, along the war’s Western Front in Flanders, Belgium, a miracle took place. On one side were the English and the French, hunkered down in their trenches. On the other side, doing the same, were the Germans. The war had been raging for five months. It was a bitter cold night.
Suddenly, an English soldier scanning the German enemy line spotted a small fir tree decorated with twinkling candles. He readjusted his binoculars and squinted, disbelieving. And then, drifting across the frozen ground of No Man’s Land, came a low rumble—not of guns—but of German soldiers singing, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht…“ softly at first, and then louder with each verse. Although the words were foreign, the carol’s tune—and its message—was unmistakable. The English and French troops responded, raising their voices and singing, “Silent Night, Holy Night…” Back and forth, back and forth, the men exchanged verses in English and German. This went on for several minutes. Then, from the depths of a German trench, a soldier raised a crudely written sign: “YOU NO SHOOT, WE NO SHOOT.” In response, the English and French soldiers waved a ragged banner that read: “MERRY CHRISTMAS.”
Cautiously, the unarmed men began to emerge from their trenches. Slowly, they crossed the dreaded No Man’s Land, where they stood face-to-face in the frosty air. For a moment, the highly trained soldiers didn’t know quite what to do. Awkwardly, they extended and shook each others‘ hands. They clapped one another’s shoulders. They embraced. Some turned their heads, to hide their tears. They gave each other permission to collect and properly bury their dead. They exchanged prisoners. And then, for the remainder of that miraculous night and throughout Christmas Day, they sang carols and exhanged gifts of cake, chocolates, biscuits, jam, canned beef, pork and beans, newspapers, postcards, and wine. They even played an impromptu game of soccer with a makeshift ball fashioned from a large tin can.
“For an instant, the God of goodwill was once more master of this corner of the earth,” recalled one French officer.
The Christmas miracle of 1914 was nothing less than the supernatural love and peace of Jesus breaking through and touching human hearts in a very big and powerful way. Although it lasted but one night and day, it was a fleeting glimpse of heaven on earth. It was what Christmas is all about.
Kathryn Slattery is a long-time Contributing Editor for Guideposts and the author of several inspirational books for children and adults. This article is adapted from her new children’s daily devotional, 365 Bible Answers for Curious Kids (Thomas Nelson Publishers).