“The Christmas Truce really happened.” That’s the first sentence of Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton’s Christmas Truce: The Western Front, December 1914, which remains, more than 35 years after publication, the definitive account of one of history’s more improbable events. Twenty-five years after I first read it, while researching my novel Flower of Iowa (where the Truce makes a cameo appearance), the declaration takes on a somewhat different resonance. In 1984, and even in 1994, there were plenty of people, especially in America, who had never heard that on December 24 and 25, 1914, Christmas trees glowed atop some of the trenches of the Great War, and some of the soldiers, primarily German and British, strolled out to meet one another in No Man’s Land.
Since then, a veritable cottage industry has grown up around what was once considered by many to be a quaint legend. To be sure, this true story lay beneath some aspects of pre-1990s popular culture (think of what inspired the Royal Guardsmen’s unexpectedly stirring 1967 novelty song, “Snoopy’s Christmas”). But the past three decades have seen an outpouring, including children’s books, a rather middling Oscar-nominated film (Joyeux Noël) and an opera based on its screenplay, even a decent folk song (John McCutcheon’s “Christmas in the Trenches,” released the same year as Brown and Seaton’s book, but only more recently a Yuletide radio staple).
And the flow of new entries has continued. The 2014 centennial of the Great War brought an elaborate commercial (yes, a commercial!), three minutes and forty seconds’ worth of a fanciful re-creation of that Christmas Eve and Day replete with exquisite production values, a suspiciously well-scrubbed cast, and remarkably neat trenches. At the end there appears a sentimental phrase about the holiday and the name of the sponsor – Sainsbury’s, a British chain of supermarkets. Of perhaps particular interest to Flower of Iowa fans, the chief relationship in this mini-movie, notwithstanding the obligatory photo of the girl back home, is a flat-out bromance between two young soldiers, one English and one German, each of whom just happens to be the most good-looking boy in his army.
PBS recently streamed All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, a “docu-musical” that I was lucky enough to catch live a couple of seasons back. A creation of the fabulously named Minneapolis troupe Theater Latté Da, it features some of the most gorgeous a cappella male choral singing you will ever hear as it retells the events of that night.
All of which leads us back to questions. Why has this event so captured our collective imagination, and why now more than ever? Why did up to 100,000 men lay down their arms for a day, or two, or a week, and go out in peace to meet their enemies face to face in No Man’s Land – and why did the Truce not start a revolution that would end the war to end wars? Books and songs, movies and plays can only try to give us some answers. Ultimately we must draw comfort, even joy, from Brown and Seaton’s simple statement of fact: The Christmas Truce really happened.