If the story in the song “Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon weren’t true, it’d be too cheesy to believe: In December 1914, enemy soldiers fighting in World War I declared unofficial truces and met each other in no man’s land for carol singing, soccer games, prisoner swaps and joint burial ceremonies.
Just weeks earlier, Pope Benedict XV had asked the warring nations to pause the fighting for Christmas, asking “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” The men in charge said no. So, the soldiers on the front lines called the truce themselves. It was a prophetic witness to peace that reflects the “true meaning of Christmas” more vividly than the best theological treatise or sermon.
My favorite way to revisit this famous story each year is via McCutcheon’s song, a lovely bit of historical fiction that condenses the story into one dreamed-up soldier’s perspective. The song describes the details of the night then pulls back to deliver big lessons in sharp, direct poetry:
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forever more.
My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War One I've learned its lessons well:
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we're the same.
The lines are strong on their own, out of context and printed on the screen, but you need to hear the music for the full impact. McCutcheon has one of my favorite all-time voices – warm, clear, and earnest. The song’s tempo, melody and finger-picked guitar match the story perfectly; sonically, it fits nicely on a “quiet Christmas” playlist. But the story here raises the stakes. It’s not pleasant background music. It’s a call to prayer.
And here’s what’s coming to me in my prayer with the song this season: Despite appearances, the strength of friendship across boundaries is more powerful and transformative than the strength of ammunition, bayonets, or mustard gas. This hope is not unlike my persistent belief that despite appearances, the helpless infant God-child who is love incarnate is more powerful than the King Herod of ancient times and the King Herods of 1914 and the King Herods of today.
So, I invite you to listen to "Christmas in the Trenches" below. How does it move you in prayer, particularly as you look ahead into the new year?
Deacon Juan F. Lezcano, OFS