Ghosts of wartime Christmas
Even during war, Christmas comes, and with it comes peace and good will.
Christmas does not wait for war. It comes every 365 days, even for those caught in a war. For Americans, the most famous wartime Christmas is when General George Washington, whose Continental Army was encamped in Pennsylvania, badly in need of some success against the British. In midst of a blizzard, with temperatures right around freezing, Washington took 2,400 troops across the Delaware River, marched them 10 miles to Trenton to battle the Hessians in America’s first major victory of the war.
There was no peace for the seven brigades of Continentals that Christmas, but there was victory and inspiration after months of defeat and retreat. Washington himself attributed our success in the Revolutionary War to divine providence. It was the primary reason for his later proclamation in 1789 designating a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer,” a day we still celebrate on the third Thursday of November, and without irony, kicks off the “Christmas season.”
The worst and most miserable war in American history is the Civil War. There were no official truces on Christmas during this bloody affair, but the soldiers fighting, sharing a language and customs, sometimes observed a moment of humanity. In 1886, just 21 years after the end of the war, Rev. John R. Paxton wrote in Harper’s Weekly, “Christmas on the Rappahannock”—a Christmas in the year 1862. Ten days after Major General Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Potomac was bloodied at Fredericksburg during an attempted a river crossing and capture Richmond, by Confederate Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, both armies were licking their wounds, separated by the river.*
It was Christmas Day, 1862. “And so this is war,” my old me said to himself while he paced in the snow his two hours on the river’s brink. “And I am out here to shoot that lean, lank, coughing, cadaverous-looking butternut fellow over the river. So this is war; this is being a soldier; this is the genuine article; this is H. Greely’s ‘On to Richmond.’ Well, I wish he were here in my place, running to keep warm, pounding his arms and breast to make the chilled blood circulate. So this is war, tramping up and down this river my fifty yards with wet feet, empty stomach, swollen nose.”
North and south met on Christmas, not as enemies, but as mere teenagers caught up in something they didn’t start, and wouldn’t end. But they “kept Christmas.”
We had bridged the river, spanned the bloody chasm. We were brothers, not goes, waving salutations of good-will in the name of the Babe of Bethlehem, on Christmas Day in ’62. At the very front of the opposing armies, the Christ Child struck a truce of us, broke down the wall of partition, became our peace. We exchanged gifts. We shouted greetings back and forth. We kept Christmas and our hears were lighter of it, and our shivering bodes were not quite so cold.
Perhaps the most written-of Christmas Truce didn’t happen on American soil, but in the muddy trenches of Europe. On Christmas Eve in 1914, the Germans sang carols, and across no man’s land, the British in their trenches heard and shouted messages back.
In many places along the front that Christmas, British and German troops met, played sports, and exchanged gifts, transforming the death zone between the trench lines into a brief peace zone. Trenches were repaired, dugouts were improved. The dead were buried with respect. But not everywhere. War still raged and men still died that Christmas in the Great War. After the brief day of truce, those men once again did their best to kill each other. But that one glorious day, the peace of God did break through the veil of death, as British Private Marmaduke Walkinton testified:
We were in the front line; we were about 300 yards from the Germans. And we had, I think on Christmas Eve, we’d been singing carols and this that and the other, and the Germans had been doing the same. And we’d been shouting to each other, sometimes rude remarks more often just joking remarks. Anyway, eventually a German said, ‘Tomorrow you no shoot, we no shoot.’ And the morning came and we didn’t shoot and they didn’t shoot. So then we began to pop our heads over the side and jump down quickly in case they shot but they didn’t shoot. And then we saw a German standing up, waving his arms and we didn’t shoot and so on, and so it gradually grew.
And after 1914, the chiefs of the armies set to kill each other thought better of allowing such pauses for the Christ child to take hold. There were no more mass truces along the blood-soaked trench lines, though some did occur against regulations.
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Three days before Christmas, 1944, the 101st Airborne Division found itself caught behind enemy lines in Bastogne. While the Wehrmacht made its final push through the Ardennes, Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army spent Christmas rushing to close the “bulge” in allied lines. Every soldier in Patton’s army carried a card printed with the prayer written in response to Patton’s request for a “good prayer for the weather.” Chaplain James H. O’Neill penned:
Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies, and establish Thy justice among men and nations. Amen.
Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, commander of the 101st, received an ultimatum from the Germans surrounding his troops, and famously replied: “To the German Commander: N UT S ! —The American Commander.”
While God seemed to have answered O’Neill’s prayer—the weather held, allowing Patton’s army to pivot and march to Bastogne’s relief—another miracle occurred in the Huertgen forest as both German and American patrols found the bounty of Christmas together. Young Fritz Vincken lived with his mother in a cottage, and on Christmas eve, his mother answered the door to find three American soldiers, one wounded quite badly, standing outside.
We learned that the stocky, dark-haired fellow was Jim; his friend, tall and slender, was Robin. Harry, the wounded one, was now sleeping on my bed, his face as white as the snow outside. They’d lost their battalion and had wandered in the forest for three days, looking for the Americans, and hiding from the Germans. They hadn’t shaved, but still, without their heavy coats, they looked merely like big boys. And that was the way Mother began to treat them.
She cooked for them, using what meager food she kept in the hope of the return of Fritz’s father. Then there was another knock at the door.
Expecting to find more lost Americans, I opened the door without hesitation. There stood four soldiers, wearing uniforms quite familiar to me after five years of war. They were Wehrmacht – Germans! I was paralyzed with fear. Although still a child, I knew the harsh law: sheltering enemy soldiers constituted high treason. We could all be shot!
The corporal leading the German patrol told Fritz’s mother, “we have lost our regiment and would like to wait for daylight…can we rest here?”
“Of course,” she replied, “you can also have a fine, warm meal and eat ‘til the pot is empty. But, we have three other guests, whom you may not consider friends. This is Christmas Eve, and there will be no shooting here.”
The young boy and his mother sat for dinner with the soldiers—all of whom had surrendered their weapons for a night of holy hospitality.
Relaxation was now beginning to replace suspicion. Even to me, all the soldiers looked very young as we sat there together. Heinz and Willi, both from Cologne, were 16. There German corporal, at 23, was the oldest of them all. From his food bag he drew out a bottle of red wine, and Heinz managed to find a loaf of rye bread. Mother cut that in small pieces to be served with the dinner; half the wine, however, she put away, ‘for the wounded boy.’ Then Mother said grace. I noticed that there were tears in her eyes as she said the old, familiar words, ‘Komm, Herr Jesus. Be our guest.’ And as I looked around the table, I saw tears, too, in the eyes of the battle-weary soldiers, boys again, some from America, some from Germany, all far from home. Just before midnight, Mother went to the doorstep and asked us to join her to look up at the Star of Bethlehem. We all stood beside her except Harry, who was sleeping. For all of us during the moment of silence, looking at the brightest star in the heavens, the war was a distant, almost-forgotten thing.
After a night’s peace, a night’s sleep under the wartime sky, the soldiers shook hands on Christmas Day, and departed for their own lines. It sounds like this story was made up, but it has been documented. Fritz Vincken wrote his version, published in a 1973 edition of Readers Digest.
These are the ghosts of wartime Christmases past. Though “wars and rumors of war” continue, because man spends his days plotting against man on earth, the one day when in the fields outside Bethlehem, an angel appeared to shepherds to proclaim, “peace on earth, good will toward men.”
In Ukraine, the Orthodox Church had always followed the Russian date of January 7th for the Christmas celebration. But this year, Christmas is coming on December 25th. There will likely be no Christmas truce along the mine-soaked ground the Russians occupy in Ukraine. As Ukrainians celebrate the birth of Christ on the same date as western Christians, Russians see this as more reason to dig in. The ghosts of the past offer no peace in Ukraine.
And closer to the original event, this Christmas, Bethlehem lies mostly deserted.
“This year, without the Christmas tree and without lights, there’s just darkness,” said Brother John Vinh, a Franciscan monk from Vietnam who has lived in Jerusalem for six years.
It was dark the night of Christ’s birth. There were no electric lights, no car headlights, no bombs or bullets or rockets flying in the sky. But there was a pure light shining in the heavens.
An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
The King of Glory was born in the most humble of circumstances. He was greatly sought by Herod, who wanted to kill him. But the angel appeared to the lowliest of workers, the shepherds in the field.
In battle, the gifts of peace and good will are given to the lowliest of soldiers, by the most unlikely of givers. Those who command divisions and armies pray for victory, but the young boys who fight on Christmas find the gift has been prepared, and given to them.
This gift requires no rank, or position. It is a free gift, available to all who desire it. Even during war, Christmas comes, and with it comes peace and good will. May the ghosts of the gifts given in past Christmases echo even today in the dark.
*The grave of Gen. Burnside is in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island. Having relatives in Providence, I have spent many days there, walking their dog through that place, and come upon the resting place of the former commander of the Army of the Potomac, Governor of Rhode Island, and most importantly, the progenitor of the term “sideburns.”