I heard a news report the other day about a driver pulling a gun on another driver in a dispute over a parking spot. No doubt it took place at a megamall. I couldn’t help but think of another news item announcing Terry Lundgren’s retirement. Lundgren is the CEO of Macy’s. I don’t think he worries about parking, although he may own a gun.
Tempers flare during the holidays, stress levels are elevated, and people are under tremendous pressure. As proof, look no further than Macy’s, which has sales “events” that are about as rare as a bar stool in a Country song. Macy’s runs sales until their workers are exhausted and their customers pull guns on each other. I probably shouldn’t pick on Macy’s, though. It’s just that the retail giant reflects superficiality and obsessive consumption on a grand scale, which, if that’s what you’re going for, is exactly how it ought to be done.
Then there is the kind of pressure that comes from artillery bombardment and machine gun fire. I am referring to World War One and the way soldiers reacted to their first Christmas in the trenches in 1914. Historians don’t agree completely on the details, but suffice it to say that German troops and Allied forces from France, Belgium, and Great Britain called a short-lived truce among themselves to the surprise and consternation of their commanders. It was likely influenced by Pope Benedict XV’s urging that “the guns …fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.”
The truce probably played out like this: German troops sang Christmas hymns in their trenches, the Allies responded with hymns of their own, and then a call and response pattern began. By the time the Brits got to O Come, All Ye Faithful, the Germans responded with the Latin version, Adeste Fideles. According to Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade, this was “a most extraordinary thing–two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
This emboldened soldiers from both sides to emerge from their trenches and meet in the middle–No Man’s Land–to exchange cigarettes, plum pudding, and chocolate. Some accounts describe impromptu soccer games being played. The truce lasted from Christmas Eve through Christmas and even into New Year’s Day at some points along the Western front.
Charles Edmonds wrote about the experience: “Envy, hatred, malice and all wretchedness, fear and cruelty born of fear, seemed the dominant passions of the leaders of the nations in those days. Only in the trenches (on both sides of No Man’s Land) were chivalry and sweet reasonableness to be found.”
What does this mean for people today? A couple of things. First, if enemy troops hyped up on propaganda and out to slaughter each other can respond in peace and love, then it ought to be possible for the rest of us who are not dodging grenades. That goes for the guy who pulled a gun over a parking spot. I bet he was going to a Crossfit workout later that day. If so, you’d think a longer walk than usual from the parking lot would be welcome.
Second, have some self-control, people. One of the virtues Aristotle emphasized was self-discipline, or sṓphrōn. Confucius, too, valued refinement, control, and balance in all things. He lived in a time of mass anarchy when there may have been knives pulled over the equivalent of a parking space. So he knew the importance of restraint and measured behavior.
Third, you hear a lot about the “spirit” of Christmas, but I don’t think it refers to a Dickens story. So, what is it, exactly? It has to do with light and the courage to follow that light even if it is just one person who does it. For instance, someone on the German side must have taken that first step and sung out loud to cheer up his comrades. And then that was offered to the enemy, who responded in kind.
It takes courage to follow the light of Christmas, to live that spirit so that instead of guns being drawn, there is plum pudding. Even so, let’s call a truce for Christmas this year, beginning tonight, Christmas Eve. Go ahead, climb out of your trench and offer your hand.