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This week, Bill Littlefield was reminded of one of his favorite holiday season stories, and he welcomes the opportunity to share it.
The letter, odd enough in these days of e-mail, texting, and tweets, was addressed to my attention. I got it on Tuesday. The handwriting on the envelope led me to think that it had come from someone old, or someone very young.
It is a gloriously happy story that ended sadly.
The only thing in the envelope was an article that had been cut from a news magazine. The article concerned the truce that briefly interrupted the fighting on the Western Front on Christmas Eve, 1914. The First World War had started four months earlier. Hundreds of thousands of people had already died in it.
The truce is said to have begun when some British soldiers heard their German counterparts singing "Stille Nacht" ("Silent Night"). In the silence that followed the hymn, the Brits began to sing "O Come, All Ye Faithful." Bravely, men from both sides climbed from their trenches and approached each other across no-man's land. There they exchanged humble gifts. It is said that some of them kicked an empty can around in an impromptu game, and that then one ingenious Scot produced an actual soccer ball. The article that came in the mail reports that the final score in the game played with that ball was Germany 3, Britain 2.
[sidebar title="More On The Christmas Truce" width="630" align="right"]In 2010 Bill spoke to Stanley Weintraub about his book "Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce." [/sidebar]According to that article, the truce ended when somebody from the German side handed a note to one of the British soldiers. It is said to have read: "Gentlemen, our automatic pistol has been ordered from the Colonel to begin to fire again at midnight. We take it as an honor to award you of this fact."
The syntax was garbled, but the message was clear. The terrible momentum of war would trump the fragile night of fellowship and play.
The story of the Christmas truce is not a sports story, of course, though it includes a soccer game. It is the story of a number of men whose yearning for peace and recognition of their shared humanity enabled them to put aside the weapons they'd been ordered to bear and celebrate for a few hours what they had in common. It is a gloriously happy story that ended sadly, just before the carnage began again in the terrible war that would eventually kill some 16 million people.
Maybe, in the days between now and Christmas, I'd have thought about the Christmas truce again. Maybe I'd have heard one of the songs about it. But the days are busy and they seem to pass more quickly each season, and maybe not. So I'm grateful for the story cut out of the news magazine, and for the person who sent me that story, and I'm especially grateful for the one-word message which he or she scrawled in red pen across the margin at the top of the story. It read "PEACE."
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