Only through a poet’s verse do we understand what happened the first Christmas night. John Milton’s poem, “The Hymn,” paints a picture of what must have been.
“… No war, or battle's sound, was heard the world around;¿The spear was high up-hung; hooked chariot stood¿unstain'd with blood;¿
“The trumpet spake, not to the armed throng;¿
“And kings sat; they surely knew their sovereign Lord was by.
“But peaceful was the night; wherein the Prince of Light, His reign of peace upon the earth began....”
On Christmas Eve in 1970 both sides of the fight assumed the role of angels and proclaimed, for 12 hours, “Peace on Earth.” The senseless slaughter of Vietnam was suspended during the Christmas Truce. But nowhere in sight was there “Goodwill toward men.”
Last year I wrote thoughts regarding the shroud of peace that enveloped my Marines at a dusty firebase called Khe Sanh. I recall enjoying moments of tranquillity and hope as my Marines followed the rituals of cleaning weapons, playing cards and staring into space. Our mood was intensified as we listened to a tune played on the radio belonging to some unnamed Marine. It was “Silent Night.” And, for a moment, “All was calm and all was bright.”
On Christmas Eve 1914, somewhere on the Western front, both sides of the fight met in no-land’s land. German and British soldiers faced each other, often only 30 yards apart. The soldiers stood knee deep in the slime of waterlogged trenches. Unequipped to face the cold and rain, they wallowed in a freezing mire of mud and the decaying bodies of the fallen.
On Christmas Eve jovial voices called out from both sides. Men began signing Christmas carols. “Don’t fire,” both sides cried. The unthinkable happened; enemies began meeting as friends as thousands of soldiers approached each other, many singing “Silent Night.”
Shadowy figures of soldiers gathered in no-man’s land laughing and joking. They shared cigarettes, the lighted ends of which burned brightly in the inky darkness.
German and British soldiers shared food, exchanged gifts, orchestrated concerts, played soccer and exchanged pictures of their families. They lighted candles and set Christmas trees on the parapets of their trenches.
The fog of war is unexplainable. At the end of the truce, the British soldiers put up a sign that read, “Merry Christmas.” German soldiers answered in kind. Then, signaling shots were fired on each side. The men returned to their trenches and sunk back into the mire. The slaughter continued. There were more than 35 million civilian and military causalities in World War I.
Why do I harbor such morose thoughts during Christmas? The answer is simple. The world continually clamors for peace but there is no peace. Peace is entwined in very fiber of our being. It dominates the higher forms of literature. But like Edgar Allen Poe’s raven, its antithesis taps on our chamber door. John Milton’s description of the first Christmas might be a mere fairy-tale. But that depends on us.
Merry Christmas must surely mean, “Peace on Earth.”
When I was in Vietnam, I wrote countless letters. At the end of my verse, I’d sign each letter, “Pray for peace.” Patiently I waited for “the Prince of Light and His reign of peace.”
Pray for peace.
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.