"And suddenly in two tongues one song filled the night sky."
Christmas in the Trenches, by John McCutcheon
In 2015, I recorded my 4th audio podcast, having just stepped into the world of recording and edition sound in obedience to the Lord that September. I had been blogging for a number of years and felt a great shift coming--but had not yet connected it to the entrance of Donald Trump into the election season that year. I just knew--our nation had been under seige, in the trenches, against a dark and destructive enemy. We needed light and deliverance from evil. And . . . it was Christmas . . .
Click above to hear this very special story--read below--tissues required. Share with your family and pray for our nation with great joy!
At Christmastime, my husband Ed grows out his whiskers and you might find us in bookstores or eldercare facilities as Mr. and Mrs. Claus. We’re blessed every time we cross the threshold of an assisted living or nursing home. The men and women spending their days in such a place once had active lives, working hard, raising families, loving, and laughing. They are now in a season of total dependence. It is a privilege to share a little song and story with them, tapping into their memory and affirming their worth.
Standing before a room filling with residents, I smile and chat with them as they’re placed before me. Some are helped with their walkers to sit in a chair. But most are rolled in on wheelchairs or larger lounge beds. Heads slump. Hands and arms involuntarily twitch. Moans are heard, or soft fragile banter as friends greet.
We often perform in one local venue and are familiar with some of the residents—always sad to learn of someone who had passed between visits. I miss seeing them.
One this particular day, as Ed and I make the rounds of the arriving audience, a woman I have never seen before, is rolled in her wheelchair directly in front of our staging area. For some reason, the nurse faces her chair sideways so she’s looking towards the fireplace rather than directly at where we’re speaking. Her eyes are closed and her chin low to her chest. The nurse says she is new, her name is Hilda, and she doesn’t speak much or connect with others. I wonder what might be locked in her mind, weary that her body can no longer support the vitality of her soul.
Some upbeat songs and a nostalgic poem or two lead us to the grand finale of our program. It is our dramatization of Christmas in the Trenches, a powerful retelling of the 1914 truce on Christmas Eve in the No Man's Land territory in France during World War I.
Ed dramatically sets the stage with his words painting the bleak battlefield landscape dugout within the trenches. The English on one side and the Germans on the other, are separated by only 30 yards—No Man’s Land. As night descends, the guns quiet. It is a lonely waiting game these soldiers have become accustomed to. None know whether they will be breathing by sunrise stuck in such a confined place. So close to death.
My elder-care audiences understand such a place. Many are old enough to have heard stories of their own father’s exploits in that very war. I marvel at what thoughts stir within them when we open the gateway to this particular story. I am about to find out.
A sentry calls for the chatter in the English trench to hush. He hears an eerie sound coming from the German side. A melody. Men's voices singing a hymn-like tune. Well, it is Christmas, after all, and the Germans have their national landscape dotted with Christian cathedrals and a rich Christian history. Much like the English do.
Not to be outdone, the Brits break into a chorus of their traditional carol, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. That’s when I step forward to sing in a peppy a capella:
God rest ye merry gentlemen let nothing you dismay.
Remember Christ our Saviour was born on Christmas day.
To save us all from Satan's power when we were gone astray.
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy--comfort and joy!
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy!
A moment passes, and another sound drifts to their ears through the dark night. Through the silent night. Through the holy night. They do not understand the words—but they surely recognize the tune.
Again, I step forward to sing. This time, it is with a bit of trepidation as I’ve had to learn the lyrics in German. I begin slowly and deliberately, careful to pronounce my words correctly: Stille Nacht!
The silent slumped woman in the sideways wheelchair moans and twitches. Heil'ge Nacht!
Again, Hilda is aroused, this time shaking her head and beating her hand on the arm of the chair. I continue, nervously. Alles schläft;
A hum. I hear a hum. Einsam wacht
As though electrified, Hilda lifts her head and shouts wacht with me! We move into the next line in unison. Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.
My mind is racing. Words catch in my throat. Dare I continue? Something precious is happening this instant. I close my mouth and allow a miracle. She sings alone. Holder Knab' im lockigen Haar,
It’s a rich, strong, tremulous voice, ignoring the well of tears crushed between pinched eyelids. My own tears begin to fall. Unhampered. Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh! Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
In that moment, that historical moment, that holy moment . . . I cannot continue the story. The room is awash in sniffles and a rush of tissues dabbing damp eyes. I begin to laugh. The nurses laugh. Joyful laughter and bliss-filled crying rise as though a second chorus of the song. Then subside. Hilda does not open her eyes. But, she nods her head—singing still in her soul with long ago voices from her homeland. I learn later that she is German and never became proficient in English.
Back in the trenches, the English lift their voices, singing along in their own language. And, it might have sounded like angels, piercing light through the dark night of war with the herald of peace on earth, God's good will to men of good will.
Silent Night, Holy Night,
All is calm, all is bright,
Round yon virgin, mother and child.
Holy infant so tender and mild.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
It was a silent and holy night, indeed, when two battling forces chose to forfeit the government of men for the government of the Prince of Peace who is Wonderful, Councilor, the Almighty God.
That night . . . "in two tongues, one song filled the air."
What happened on that French battlefield in 1914 was miraculous, indeed. When men lay aside the gods of this world, they can be empowered to turn No Man's Land into the Promised Land, standing firm footed in the domain of Heavenly Peace. Ruled by the Prince of Peace. The Reason for the Season. Jesus.
I think Hilda might have drifted off to sleep before we finished the story. But, for a moment, I believe she lived a dream come true. A connection between heaven and earth in the soul of one weary, worn, wheelchair bound woman. And I am honored to be a present witness to it.
But, the story continues. Slowly, soldiers on both sides creep out of the trenches and meet in the middle ground—the No Man’s Land where none dared cross before. Together, they pass the hours swapping Christmas gifts sent from their respective homes, sharing photographs of their families, singing carols together, and playing soccer through the night watch until morning.
Not one of them is willing to fire upon the other by sunrise. They all awake in the morning with hope close at hand—not death. Light sweeps away the dark. Lives are changed. Entire regiments are recalled and refreshed with new soldiers unjaded by the visitation of the Spirit of Christmas.
But, as Ed and I bid farewell to our audience, and Hilda in particular, we’ve experienced a visitation of our own. No story or song we might have performed could eclipse the light that flooded the room when Hilda lifted her head and voice to sing. Alive, for an instant, grasping tight to the Spirit of Christmas. Her hope. Her peace.
My meditations on Christmas in the trenches and its impact on the men in their day, and right there in the elder care gathering room, drive home to me a truth we as Christians must hold fast in our hearts through the night of these contemporary times and current events: Only Jesus brings hope. Only Jesus brings peace.
When Europe was at war in 1914, they were brother nations fighting brother nations. Their Western European history was linked together with the scarlet threads of the blood of Jesus Christ—Christian nations all. When their man-centered governments did not place Christ on the throne as Prince of Peace, wars ensued. It continues to be a painful fact of history, century after turbulent century. Those men in the trenches, on both sides, lived out the eternal truth: Only Christmas—the coming of Jesus Christ—has the power to silence guns. Enemies see the light of He whom they both know as the Heavenly King.
A Government exceeding all governments.
But times are much changed since then. Our world is threatened by a terroristic enemy who not only does not know Jesus as Heavenly King, but has sworn to annihilate any government of men's heart and lands that is not their own. Peace is not in their vocabulary. The No Man's Land that separates the two sides can never become a soccer field for a friendly game.
This Christmas, I reflect on the headlines, and the domestic tragedies that appear to be heightened with so much hate rampant and fueled by human governments. Ignorance and Want, having fled the protective shielding under the garment robes of Charles Dicken's Spirit of Christmas Present, and causes unbridled havoc in society at large.
Still, I am convinced more than ever—the Prince of Peace, the coming of Jesus Christ—is the ONLY hope for peace and resolution to these ills.
We are battling a new trench enemy in this 21st century, stirred by an age-old evil called sin. May we pray that Christmas comes into our trenches on whatever front we find ourselves fighting wars. Be it in health, relationships, loss, living, governments, worldviews, or physical battlegrounds with guns and canons, my prayer this Christmas is that you know Jesus in the trenches with you. And, that hope in Him brings peace to your war and your world.
Book Review by Kathryn Ross
Christmas in the Trenches
Written by John McCutcheon
Illustrated by Henri Sorensen
Hardcover w/Bonus CD ISBN: 9781561453740
If you read my feature article in this issue of Ruby for Women on the Christmas Truce of 1914, you’ll have some backstory to how moving this story is and how worthy of a closer look with a couple of good books.
In the picture book with companion CD, Christmas in the Trenches, the story told here is passed down from one of the survivors of the World War I Christmas truce of 1914. Sumptuous paintings by Denmark native, Henri Sorensen, illustrate author John McCutcheon's tale of a grandfather re-telling the story of his favorite Christmas at the beckoning of his grandchildren. In truth, there are many other tales told from WWI survivors who experienced a silent night/holy night like this on other fronts each year of the war. This particular storybook is adapted from the folk song written and recorded by John McCutcheon in 1984--and is performed, song and reading, by the author on the accompanying CD.
It is one of my very favorite stories to retell. This visual masterpiece edition is a must have for every home, and in the dark days in which we now live. When it seems the world is at war with more ferocity than ever, here is a story to reflect upon as a family each Christmas Eve. Though not necessarily drawn out by the author, this story stirs the heart with a hunger for the peace and justice of God's government to reign supreme.
For more first-hand accounts of Christmas truce stories collected from interviews, letters, and diaries from World War I, you may enjoy Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, by Stanley Weintraub, ISBN: 978-0452283671.
After reading these stories together as a family, take some time to write a Christmas card or letter to a veteran serving on the front lines and far from home. Contact your local Marine detachment for information on where to mail your cards. Keep our soldiers on your prayer list.
You may also consider making some simple Christmas ornaments and visiting a local elder care or assisted living facility with little gifts for the residents. Plan to visit and perhaps sing a few Christmas carols and wish them the hope and peace of Jesus this season. Perhaps, if you read my article in this issue, Holy Moments in No Man’s Land, you will stir a soul like Hilda and bless her heart in immeasurable ways.
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