Remembering the ‘Christmas Truce’ of WWI

Read the inspiring story of WWI's Christmas truce, which will change the way you listen to "Snoopy's Christmas."
“That the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” —Pope Benedict XV

“Snoopy’s Christmas” must be in the running for cheesiest holiday ditty of all time, but if you listen carefully, it holds an unlikely prompt to peace. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the conclusion of World War I, which is maybe why it’s sticking out to me when I hear it everywhere in the stores and radio.

The Royal Guardsmen recorded the song in 1967 and based the story in the lyrics on characters in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic. It starts off with sounds of cannon fire and a choir’s rendition of the opening lines of “O Tannenbaum” (in German). Then the Guardsmen’s drummer kicks in with a perky, militaristic snare, and the singer paints a picture of an impending clash. It’s Christmas Eve, and Snoopy’s World War I nemesis, the Red Baron (a Peanuts version of the real WWI ace, Manfred von Richthofen), was on the move. Reluctantly, the intrepid beagle takes to his doghouse to meet him in imaginary aerial combat.

As the bouncy tale unfolds, conflict gives way to comity, as reflected in the chorus. “Christmas bells, those Christmas bells, ring out from the land” (cue the horns and glockenspiel). “Asking peace of all the world, and good will to man.” The Red Baron, unexpectedly, foregoes a strategic advantage and allows Snoopy to escape. And when Snoopy has to land on enemy territory, he is both welcomed and toasted by his erstwhile foe.

My son knows all the words and he sang along full-throated in the car one day. I did too, at least on the chorus, and then a light went on. “This is about the Christmas truce!” I thought to myself. Sure enough, when I later tracked down the history of the song, I found out that others had made that connection as well.

The Christmas truce was a moral miracle of spontaneous concord that occurred in various spots along the Western Front in 1914. Trench warfare was a brutal affair, and it was facilitated by a demonizing of the enemy across no man’s land. The French and British troops on one side were convinced that the Germans on the other side were bloodthirsty fiends, and vice versa. The abstract political calculations that led those troops to be in those trenches in the first place were irrelevant. Instead, the young men and their officers were motivated by a very practical consideration: Kill or be killed.

Yet, the vast majority of those young men were Christians, Protestant and Catholic. As Christmas approached in the first year of World War I, the terrible irony of their mutual slaughter weighed on their collective consciousness. At least, that’s the best explanation for what happened at the end of December 1914, when German soldiers at first, but then their French and British counterparts in response, decided to stop firing on each other and share some yuletide cheer.

Much like the Red Baron and Snoopy, thousands of men dropped their arms in honor of the celebration of the birth of Christ. They clambered out of their trenches and, calling out Christmas greetings, approached their peers from the other side. They sang carols, they exchanged gifts, they feasted and played games, they gave each other leave to bury their dead. Most importantly, they came to see their enemies as flesh-and-blood human beings with families, histories, and aspirations. They learned each other’s names and faces. They ceased killing — for a time.

Eventually, the higher-ups got wind of these cessations of hostility and put an end to it. The troops were compelled to regain their own trenches and resume their pitched battles. Nonetheless, their memory of their encounters lingered, as documented in their letters home, and they found it difficult to recover the urgency for annihilation they’d had before.

None of this, of course, plays into my son’s enjoyment of the Royal Guardsmen song. For him, it’s simply a fun, catchy tune that’s easy to remember and sing along with. No doubt, that’s why it’s a ubiquitous holiday staple — on the radio as well as shopping mall background music everywhere. It strikes all the right notes, with Tannenbaums and bells and goodwill sentiments.

But now, especially in this year marking 100 years since World War I’s conclusion, I’ll be listening to “Snoopy’s Christmas” with new ears. I can’t find any evidence that the composer had the Christmas truce in mind when he shaped the song for the Guardsmen, but so be it. Their peppy classic stands as a veiled, popular testament to authentic peacemaking, and that’s exactly what we need to hear this time of year.

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