In the story I remember, a fierce conflict rages between two Ace pilot adversaries of the first World War. One of these pilots is Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, the “Bloody Red Baron” of Germany. The other pilot… is Snoopy. The Red Baron has decimated all other pilots in his path, leaving only this one valiant beagle, flying his trusty Sopwith Camel, to endure the deadly aerial onslaught. But at some point in the ensuing… um, dogfight, Baron von Richthofen gains the tactical advantage. Plunging out of nowhere, sun at his back, props screaming, The Red Baron settles his Fokker Dr.I triplane in behind the frantic Snoopy in perfect kill position—only to hesitate at the faint sound of church bells, joyfully announcing the arrival of Christmas day. Forcing Snoopy’s plane to the ground, the suddenly jovial Baron leaps from his plane, claps him on the back and announces “Merry Christmas, my friend!”
Laugh all you like at the absurdity of this story. That won’t make the inspirational and historical event it’s based on go away. No, although the Red Baron was a real and deadly fighter pilot for the German Luftstreitkräfte during WWI, he never actually engaged in mortal combat with Charlie Brown’s empathetic canine—sorry to burst your bubble. There was however, during the brutally harsh winter of 1914, a Christmas ceasefire so moving and unusual that books are still being written in an attempt to capture and preserve its power.
According to various eyewitness accounts, the wartime miracle in question took place on Christmas Eve, along the 27-mile stretch of roughly parallel trenches “that began at the edge of the English Channel and continued to the border of Switzerland” (www.eyewitnesstohistory.com). In most places, these trenches were 60-100 yards apart. In other spots, machine gunners and snipers faced-off at a distance of no more than 30 yards. On this day, however, instead of flaming bursts from protruding gun barrels, tiny Christmas trees with lit candles suddenly began to appear along the top of the German trench walls. Later thatday, a chocolate cake was mysteriously delivered to the British lines from the Germans with a note, requesting a ceasefire the following day (Christmas). Frank Richards was a British soldier who experienced this "Christmas Truce". "On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with 'A Merry Christmas' on it,” He writes—“The enemy had stuck up a similar one… Two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench.” For the rest of that Christmas day and through most of the next, British and German soldiers openly swapped gifts, sang songs about the birth of Christ and played soccer games (they also drank watered down beer). Though it was a Holiday ceasefire never again to be repeated throughout the rest of the war, it remained, for those who experienced it, a moment of peace that would likewise never be forgotten.
Of course, there are many historians that look back on this event with the sour eye of cynicism. I was amazed at the number of demoralizing theories posited for the unusual day of peace—‘both sides were just tired of the trenches,’ ‘they were in a good mood because it stopped raining that day,’ and my personal favorite—‘they were just trying to gain a tactical advantage by looking into each other’s trenches.’ While snippets of these grinchy theories may have been true of some individuals, I believe the soldiers on that day, by and large, laid down their guns because they caught a lingering echo of the angels’ announcement to humble shepherds long ago and grasped a glimpse of the power behind heaven’s ceasefire. So that, at the words “Peace on earth, good will towards men,” Germans and British alike were compelled to emulate towards each other God’s goodwill towards them.
It's understandable that, for the sake of teaching our children Jesus’ example of unselfish love, we rightly repeat His own words each Christmas—“It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). This is right, good, True, and when it comes to giving to and receiving from one another, there really is a greater blessing in the giving than in the receiving. But what I think ends up happening sometimes is that, in all the frenzied pressure to find enough gifts, ‘the best gift,’ or simply something worthwhile to give to one another during the Christmas season, we neglect to first receive from God. We end up giving ourselves empty and forget to receive ourselves full, of the triumphant announcement—of peace.
Christmas is the announcement of a peace offering from God to all people, a divine treaty born in human flesh, a holy ceasefire initiated by God to end and mend the rebellious conflict raging between His holy standards and humanity’s willful sin that He did not incite. And the design of this announcement, its intent—was that heaven’s offering of peace would be received by humankind and accepted. That’s all God wanted for Christmas.
You know, there were some soldiers during the ceasefire of 1914 that hung back while others scrambled to climb out of the trenches. Some of these who remained behind were too angry. Some were too afraid. Some simply couldn’t trust what seemed too good to be true. And as long as they remained in their trenches, they were still at war. As long as they stayed in their trenches, they missed out on the experience of peace. So here's my question to you; will you acknowledge heaven’s ceasefire this year? Before you worry one more wart onto the face of Christmas because of any giving you still have to do, will you first receive the gift that heaven gave? Because when it comes right down to it, all the secondhand blessings in the world find their source in one truth: It’s more blessed that God gives and you receive. And until you come out from your muddy trench to do so, you’ll remain unable to offer anything to anyone of lasting value this Christmas.
“10 Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:
14 “ Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2)
For Emmanuel’s sake— un-trench.