Christmas Truce: Raising Our White Flags with ‘Joyeux Noël’
I am stretched out on a red couch gifted to me by my aunt and uncle when I moved into my first solo apartment a few years ago. I am icing my knee, having aggravated it while jogging at the gym tonight, and eating a simple black bean burrito for dinner. I am 29 years old.
Mine is a life where the basic, day to day needs are always met. My job is reliable. My friends usually answer. My time is full and productive.
Yet with the holiday season comes a new tension. With more time to pause and reflect, I feel grateful, but I am also more keenly aware of where my life is lacking—the places I’ve seen myself but not yet been able to reach. It is a time of reflection on everything that has been, as well as what I hoped would be but has not yet become.
There is a word in Portuguese, with no direct English translation, that somewhat captures this elusive feeling: saudade. Michael Amaruso poetically describes it as “the presence of absence.” A peculiar feeling to grapple with in a season of joy and celebration, I try to make time to sit with it, to let the feeling tell me why it is there and what I have to learn.
Each year, in between the fun movies from my childhood, I make time to watch one in particular that brings up this feeling of longing—or perhaps it reminds me that I’m already feeling it. Written and directed by French filmmaker Christian Carion, Joyeux Noël was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005, where it did not win any major awards. A later nomination (but no win) for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film brought a limited release in the US. Unfortunately, a spring premiere does not bode well for a Christmas movie, and Joyeux Noël is considered a box office failure.
Despite unsuccessful sales, the movie has been generally well reviewed, with most critics forgiving its occasional sentimentality for the sake of historical relevance and import of its message.
A fictional story based on true events, Joyeux Noël tells the story of a World War I event so unprecedented and also never repeated, it has almost become the stuff of myth. According to various soldiers’ accounts, on Christmas Eve 1914 a spontaneous ceasefire occurred in various places along the Western front. Enemy soldiers emerged from their filthy, freezing, trenches, exchanged gifts, sang carols, and shared meals of humble rations. In some places, the celebration went on for days. Men who had been attempting to kill one another mere hours before
Word of the unauthorized ceasefires eventually reached commanding officers, who furiously ordered the fighting to continue, and it did. It is sobering to consider that for many, this unexpected celebration was the last happy memory they would ever make.
Journals and letters from soldiers indicate the occurrence of multiple ceasefires, but Joyeux Noël depicts just one. In the film, a famous German singer has come to entertain his country’s troops on Christmas Eve, performing hymns and carols down in the trenches for his cold, homesick countrymen. In the midst of “Silent Night,” he is suddenly joined by bagpipes from the enemy Scottish trench, just a few hundred feet away. In a cinematic moment that will take your breath away, the German continues singing as he climbs out of the trench, carrying with him a small, candlelit Christmas tree which had been sent to cheer up the soldiers. Some of them try to hold him back, insisting it’s a trap, but he stands up in “no man’s land,” the space between trenches. The bagpipes start up again with “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and the German walks through the snow and places the small tree on the ground, bowing humbly as he finishes his song. Other soldiers follow suit, and the celebration begins.
Director Christian Carion claims that, although the characters are fictitious, his depiction of the general events is accurate, and based on what records we have, he’s right. In his podcast about the historical accuracy of films, Based on a True Story, creator Dan LeFebvre contends not only that the story aligns with historical record, but that it may have been even more dramatic and moving than what is depicted in the film. LeFebvre explains that the trenches were indeed close enough in certain areas that soldiers could hear their enemies talking, and they could certainly have heard singing and instruments. Indeed, according to corroborated accounts, the one characteristic that unites the various ceasefires along the front was music.
A year before the release of this film, Washington Post writer David Brown published a moving piece on what is sometimes called “the Christmas truce,” making this astute observation: “In lacking a hero or sacred site, [the Christmas truce] has kept a single emotion at its core—the desire for peace of the most literal and personal kind.”
This movie is set in a horrific low point in human history. WWI was long and gruesome, unprecedented in its destruction. Of the estimated 10 million military deaths, about a third were caused not by battle itself but from diseases contracted in the cold, wet trenches. It is difficult to think of a more miserable time or place.
Yet out of this nightmare came an unbelievable moment, a moment where bitter hatred gave in to goodness. Imagine it. People shared precious rations of chocolate and liquor with those whom, hours before, had been shooting at them. They showed one another pictures of their families. They told stories and laughed and missed home. Who knows how long the peace would have lasted without the orders which stopped it?
What is it about Christmas that makes us put down our weapons and embrace those we once hated? How do we so quickly forget everything that divided us? We hear so much about miracles this time of year—so much that the idea might seem trite—but, truly, it cannot be anything less than a miracle. It is a spontaneous ceasefire in the midst of war. Something beyond us, something bigger and better we cannot see, gives us permission to crawl out of our trenches and feel things we’d forgotten we could feel.
Today it seems we all face increasing pressure to choose sides and defend those sides aggressively. We are expected to die on every hill, to martyr ourselves for every cause. Our political and social affiliations, so often inherited and in some respects involuntary, are believed to reflect our character in deep and significant ways, which means that someone with different affiliations cannot possibly relate to us. So many encounters presume conflict of the zero-sum sort, where there can only be one winner, and it is our burden to fight and determine who that winner will be.
In this world of sweeping conflict and unending tension, what I yearn for in my tired body feels less like victory and more like release.
One of the miraculous gifts of Christmas is the opportunity for total surrender—not to the other side or to your enemy, but to forsake the fight altogether. Whether that war is between you and another, or if it rages silently in your own heart, I hope you’ll let Christmas be the peacemaker we all so desperately need.
Give yourself permission. Surrender to peace.
Erin is an administrator and instructor at the University of Utah, holding degrees in sociology and international affairs. She writes about gender, religion, art, and history, exploring how individuals exist within and fight against social systems. Her essays have been published in The Exponent and Young Mormon Feminists.