HISTORY OF THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE OF 1914: PEACE IN THE WWI TRENCHES
Over a century ago, across the 400-mile battle line of Europe, World War I had claimed almost a million lives over the previous five months of battle. The Great War, “the war to end all wars,” was about to experience something almost unheard of in two thousand years of warfare: a temporary though unofficial truce. As Christmas Eve fell in the trenches of Flanders Field, German soldiers had erected Christmas Trees with lighted candles.
At about 8:30 pm, as the firing of guns began to subside, the Germans began to sing “Stille Nacht.” The song was originally written in German, but the British soldiers knew the English words to “Silent Night.” They replied with a British chorus of “The First Noel.” During this time, soldiers wrote in diaries to tell of local armistices established between both sides, occurring across dozens of other locations along the battle line as well. One British soldier said that
… down the line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war:
“English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!”
German and British soldiers left their trenches. They crossed “No Man’s Land” to meet and exchanged gifts they’d received from home: chocolate, tobacco, alcohol, articles of clothing, buttons, badges, and hats. The British soldiers bartered tins of plum pudding and tobacco sent to them by King George. The Germans had pipes with a picture of the Crown Prince.
HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS EVE: POLISH CHRISTMAS WAFER
My friend and neighbor Phil gave me Opłatek, or Christmas wafers, as part of his Polish Christmas tradition. This practice is now common in many countries across Eastern Europe — among Lithuanians, Czechs, and Slovaks — but in Poland, it is a legacy from the past to celebrate the vigil of Christmas Eve, going back to the 10th century.
During the 17th century, it spread from there and was emblematic — especially since the 19th-century partitioning of Poland — of the country becoming independent again. During WWII, families would send pieces of oplatek to relatives dispersed around the world wherever they were.
Each wafer is embossed with an image from the Christmas story, usually the nativity scene or the Star of Bethlehem. An empty place is set at the family table in memory of ancestors, departed loved ones, and the Unseen Guest, Jesus Christ. There is high hope that the “Unexpected Guest” will come and bless the gathering. As Christmas Eve marks the end of the Advent fast, to be followed by the 12 Days of Christmas, at the start of dinner just after grace, the male head of the house takes the wafer and expresses his hopes for his wife in the year to come.
It might be good health or a request for forgiveness for his shortcomings. His wife breaks off a piece and eats it, then returns the blessing and shares the wafer with her husband. The ceremony continues with older relatives, guests, and children from oldest to youngest.
HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS EVE AND THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE: 77 YEARS AGO
On Christmas Eve, 1944, my father, Staff Sergeant John Petro, had arrived in Strasbourg with the 42nd “Rainbow” Infantry Division. Eight days earlier, the Battle of the Bulge had begun. The 42nd Division, along with others, supplied much-needed reinforcements to the most extensive and bloodiest battle of World War II involving American forces. 610,000 Americans, 55,000 British, and 72,000 Free French troops were involved in this battle.
The German Wacht am Rhein “Watch on the Rhine” offensive had begun a week before my father arrived. By Christmas Eve, the American troops at the Battle of the Bulge had taken heavy casualties, and reinforcements were invaluable. The bad weather had weakened the American supply lines. The winter of 1944 was one of the coldest in recorded history; temperatures averaged 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Frostbite was rampant.
Of all the uniformed American troops in the world at that time, 1/8th took part in the Battle of the Bulge.
How did a typo in my local newspaper erroneously connect to the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Operations Center, now at NORAD here in Colorado Springs, with requests for the flight location of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve in 1955 — and in years since?
And how can you check in on him this year?
NORAD Santa Tracker
Back in 1955, the Continental Air Defense Command home would eventually become NORAD in 1958. You’ve probably heard of NORAD in movies like Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, WarGames, and ID-4. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is a joint U.S./Canadian military installation that sits 1,600 feet deep inside Cheyenne Mountain here in Colorado Springs.
When it was built in the late ’50s and early ’60s, it was intended to be able to handle a nuclear blast outside. Even in this day of MIRV nuclear missiles, NORAD remains its reputation as a self-contained bunker, and for years has been responsible for scanning the airspace above North America for missiles, aircraft, and near-space objects. I’ve visited the missile command center and seen the “big board” during operations, though the displays have only unclassified information when visitors look in.
SCIENCE OF THE WINTER SOLSTICE
As I mentioned in my article on Advent, the Romans, during the later Empire period, celebrated a holiday known as the Saturnalia, beginning on the Winter Solstice. The word Solstice comes from the Latin “solstitium,” meaning “Sun, standing still.” This year it occurs on December 21 at 15:59 GMT (or UTC) and marks the first day of the Winter season in the Northern Hemisphere from an astronomical perspective.
Earth enjoys different seasons because the planet is tilted 23 degrees and 27 minutes off the perpendicular to the plane of orbit. This means that the world revolves like a tilted spinning top. The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of sunlight as the Sun is at its lowest arc in the sky, at least in the Northern Hemisphere.
The farther north one is from the Equator, the more pronounced this is in Winter. However, as the Earth continues its orbit, the hemisphere that is angled closest to the sun changes, and the seasons are reversed. (more…)
HISTORY OF THE FIRST AMERICAN CHRISTMAS: 1776
It is called the first “American” Christmas because the Declaration of Independence was created the previous summer, essentially “divorcing” America from England and declaring our country an independent nation.
Admittedly, at that time, the country had not yet created a solid form of government. The Articles of Confederation had not yet been produced until 1781, nor the subsequent Constitution (1788.) But there is no doubt that Americans saw themselves as independent of England… at least most did. But these “Patriots” had to fight for their independence in a War of Independence, a Revolutionary War.
Crossing the Delaware
On Christmas Day of 1776, General George Washington led the American Continental Army across the Delaware River to attack British forces in Trenton, New Jersey.
The Patriots had had an unsuccessful Fall, experiencing defeats in New York.
- Supplies and morale were low.
- The British had overrun Fort Washington in Manhattan, taking 2,000 American prisoners.
- Ninety percent of the Continental Army soldiers who had served at Long Island were gone.
- Men had deserted, feeling that the cause for independence was lost.
- The line between being an American Patriot and being a Loyalist to England was thin and hard times made it easier to cross that line.
Even the 44-year-old George Washington was discouraged, having written to his cousin in Virginia,
“I think the game is pretty nearly up.”
On December 19, 1843, Charles Dickens’ novella “A Christmas Carol” was published in London, its first edition sold out by Christmas Eve.
No other book or story by Dickens or anyone else (except the Bible) has been more enjoyed, referred to, criticized, or more frequently adapted to other media forms: theatre, opera, radio, film, TV, or comics.
One of my favorite versions was watching Patrick Stewart performing his one-man version of the play at the Old Vic Theatre in London back in the early ’90s.
None of Dickens’ other works is more widely recognized or celebrated within the English-speaking world. Some scholars have even claimed that in publishing A Christmas Carol, Dickens single-handedly invented the modern form of the Christmas holiday in England and the United States. The movie “The Man Who Invented Christmas” argues that very point.
Indeed, the great British thinker G. K. Chesterton noted long ago, with “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens succeeded in transforming Christmas from a sacred festival into a family feast. In so doing, he brought the holiday inside the home. He thus made it accessible to ordinary people, who could now participate directly in the celebration rather than merely witnessing its performance in church. I wrote about the life of Charles Dickens a few years ago on the anniversary of his 200th birthday here.
HISTORY OF THE NUTCRACKER: THE BALLET THAT’S A CHRISTMAS TRADITION
On December 18, 1892, The Nutcracker premiered at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, a week before Christmas.
The Nutcracker has had such an enduring influence on the celebration of Christmas for more than a century that no one even notices that it never mentions Christ or the Nativity. In the last 70 years, the popularity, especially in America, of stage, film, and televised performances of the ballet has cemented it firmly into the tradition of Christmas celebrations. It has Christmas trees, toys, snowflakes, candy, fairies, and of course, children.
Nutcracker’s Initial Reception
One of Tchaikovsky’s most famous pieces — like Handel‘s initial London performance of Messiah — The Nutcracker was panned by critics when it premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892, a week before Christmas.
I’m often asked to explain the history behind a holiday: is it based on history, tradition, or legend? The best historical sources we have on the birth of Jesus are found in two of the Gospel accounts in the New Testament: St. Matthew and St. Luke.
St. Matthew was a companion of Jesus during his ministry.
St. Luke was not. Instead, he was a companion of the Apostle Paul during his journeys. Still, Luke shows a detailed knowledge of primary sources, appearing to have spoken directly to Jesus’ mother Mary, perhaps during his travels while she was living in Ephesus with the Apostle John. Luke’s account contains much more detail and is four times longer than Matthew’s.
HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS: CAESAR AUGUSTUS
Perhaps it is fitting that our last historical Nativity character in the History of Christmas series should be the first person mentioned in St. Luke‘s story of the first Christmas. But he was not Jewish, nor a shepherd, nor a Magi.
Instead, he was 1500 miles away, the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, after whom is named the month of August. Were it not for his imperial decision, Jesus would not have been born in Bethlehem but Nazareth, the home of Mary. And this would have messed up all the Old Testament prophesies 😉
Augustus’ Early Life
Augustus succeeded Julius Caesar. Octavius, as he was previously known, was about 18 when Julius died. Julius was his maternal great-uncle who was assassinated in 44 B.C. Octavius’ mother was the daughter of Julia, the sister of Julius. He was a senator’s son, placing him in the upper class of patricians in Roman society.
Julius himself launched Octavius’ career when the latter delivered the public funeral speech for his grandmother Julia when only 12. At 15 or 16, he was elevated to the exclusive College of Priests. At 17, he accompanied Julius in the triumph over his opponents defeated in Africa. (more…)
HISTORY OF KING HEROD: WHY WAS HE CALLED GREAT
The Wise men asked Herod the King:
“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?”
While this seems an unlikely question to ask a client king of the great Roman Empire, they were not asking in a complete vacuum. During the century around Jesus’ birth, there had been hints.
Historical Context of King Herod
The Roman historian Suetonius, who lived in the late 1st and early 2nd century, had written:
“There had spread over all the East an old and established belief, that it was fated at the time for men coming from Judea to rule the world.”
The Roman senator and historian Tacitus, who lived at the same time, wrote:
“There was a firm persuasion that at this very time the east was to grow powerful and rulers coming from Judea were to acquire a universal empire.”
The Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus writes in his Jewish Wars that the Jews believed that:
One from their country would soon become ruler of the habitable world.
King Herod: Jewish Ruler
However, the Wise Men were asking the currently ruling King of the Jews where the king of the Jews was, perhaps unwisely, and no doubt Herod inferred this as an accusation that he himself was an imposter. Herod had been particularly paranoid at this time and mistrusted all those around him as contenders for the tenuously held throne.
Instead of imprisoning these Magi for their impudence, he perceptively endeavored to determine how he could get from them any intelligence so he could eliminate this potential rival. With what he learned from them about the appearance of the Star, as well as what his own scholars gleaned from the Biblical prophecies, Herod determined that this “king of the Jews” was no more than two years of age and living in the nearby town of Bethlehem, the “City of David,” just 6 miles away. (more…)
HISTORY OF THE WISE MEN: THE MAGI
Every Christmas season, you hear this song. It has been sung for over 150 years. You’re familiar with the lyrics from this famous 19th century American Christmas carol that begins with the line:
“We Three Kings of Orient Are…”
but it is inaccurate in at least three ways:
- We don’t know how many visitors there were
- But we know they weren’t kings
- They did not originate in the Orient, meaning the Far East
Here’s what we know about these Wise Man.
Home of the Wise Men
So how could they have seen the star “in the East” and have arrived in Jerusalem unless they had begun their journey somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea? It says in the Gospel of Matthew 2:2
“We saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him.”
Wise Men In the East?
One natural explanation is to see it in the sense of “We saw his star when we were in the east and have come from the east to worship him.”
Several traditions place their number at three, with the conjecture of three gifts for three givers: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But some earlier traditions make quite a caravan of their visit, setting their number as high as twelve. (more…)