Commercializing The Christmas Truce: Spinning Hay into Dollars

 

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was a remarkable event that encompasses wonder, pathos, and courage. On Christmas Eve German and English soldiers were brutally slaughtering each other, the next morning they were exchanging presents, photos of home and playing games together. The truce was neither ordered by nor approved by officers. It  was initiated by infantry. This unlikely occurrence is used as a sacred reminder by some to suggest  that war might  end by a miraculous awakening of fellowship. Spontaneous Grace. See! It can be done! Others see it more modestly -- as reminder of humanity in the midst of brutality. Still others might see the momentary truce as an anomaly about which any generalizations are dangerous.

This is what the website History.com has to say about the truce:

“The so-called Christmas Truce of 1914 came only five months after the outbreak of war in Europe and was one of the last examples of the outdated notion of chivalry between enemies in warfare. It was never repeated—future attempts at holiday ceasefires were quashed by officers’ threats of disciplinary action—but it served as heartening proof, however brief, that beneath the brutal clash of weapons, the soldiers’ essential humanity endured. During World War I, the soldiers on the Western Front did not expect to celebrate on the battlefield, but even a world war could not destroy the Christmas spirit.”

This Christmas, 2014, one hundred years  since the event, I was sent a video, a reenactment of the truce, meant, if not to fan the weak flame of the hope of peace, at least instill profound wonder that such an event could have happened at all. Instead, I found myself finding other interpretations and meanings in the truce, disturbing ones, that I think ought to be considered.

 

When I opened the link in my email, I took the video to be a truce scene from a movie about WWI.  I was wrong. It’s actually an advertisement made to look like a movie scene. I hadn’t read the fine print: “Presenting the new Sainsbury’s Christmas advert. Made in partnership with The Royal British Legion. Inspired by real events from 100 years ago.”

The video begins as rifle fire lulls between the opposing lines. It’s dark. Christmas Eve.  In the dismal, lantern-lit trenches orderlies hand out Christmas letters & packages. Otto, in the German trench, receives a favorite biscuit from home; Jim, in the English,  a large bar of chocolate. A German soldier begins singing Silent Night, an English soldier joins, soon the trenches are singing to each other. Snow swirls in a bleak wind, coils of barbed wire and ramparts cross No Man’s Land. (A clean No Man’s Land, by the way. No bodies frozen in death.)  At dawn a brave soldier from each side --- against the shouted warnings and cocked rifles of comrades --- nervously climbs  the ladder out of the trench and, hands raised, approaches the other line. They meet in the middle  and Jim shakes Otto’s hand like new, warm friends. They wish each other Merry Christmas. Sentimental music swells.  Soon the trenches are emptied and the men ( boys)  are playing cards, soccer, showing each other photos of their hometowns & girlfriends, laughing. An English barber shaves a German’s neck with a straight razor. The two first soldiers have secreted presents into each other's greatcoat pockets. Some shooting begins down the line and they look wistfully at each other and  return to the trenches to resume killing each other --- but not before the Otto discovers in his pocket the chocolate bar  Jim has slipped there. He studies it in wonder and affection. Jim does the same with Otto’s biscuit.

I get choked up watching this. Not just once but every time --- because I watched it several times trying to understand my own feelings. The cinematographer’s effects --- music, lighting, close ups, editing --- facilitate my reaction. But the cause of the emotion is the story. How easily these young men have slipped the bonds of hatred! How genuinely they embrace one another! How eager they are to exchange pieces of each other’s lives like religious artifacts! The day before if a man allowed his head to rise above the edge of the trench for a second, he was inviting death. Now, hatless, totally vulnerable, they joke and play. How can one not weep for the pity and tragedy of war, not weep for these beautiful young men, and not weep knowing what came next.

What comes next on the video is this: as Jim and Otto find the gifts in their pockets, the scene  dissolves into an add for Sainsbury’s chocolate. The terror, lunacy, horror, beauty & sentimentality of the moment is exploited for commerce. On the screen it says, “Christmas is the time for sharing.”  Does this mean that every other day of the year is for selfishness and killing? Christmas is for fraternity, otherwise fraternity is fraternization with the enemy, treason. Let's break chocolate together today & then blow each other's heads off tomorrow --- in that order so the purchase has been made and  the good feeling of the moment of communion lingers in the air like gunsmoke. Let the music drown the screaming.

Those last sentences sounds bitter. It’s not bitterness exactly that I feel. We live in an age when corporations miss no opportunity to commercialize every human interaction (the kind of moments MasterCard calls “Priceless”) as they associate their services and products with moments of sentiment. Is anyone of us still so naive as to feel surprised or bitter by this commercialization? (Well, I am, but I may be an exception.) The economic pirates commandeered the ship of state, hoisted the the skull and cross bones and the dollar sing a long time ago. But, what happens when such a  moment is commercialized, when its poignancy is shunted onto the commercial track, when the poignancy is misdirected from the opening of the heart and mind into the distillation of its sugar content, the sentimental gift of chocolate. The urgency of poignancy morphs into the urgency of profit. Purposely sweet, but empty. The aftermath of poignancy is analysis of its effect; the aftermath of piracy is emptiness, exploitation, anger and humiliation.

What’s poignant about the Christmas Truce? First the word poignant --- an experience that has emotional complexity, something hard to categorize, it twists, it burrows, the layers of idea & feeling braid, it corkscrews into one’s heart, and encysts there, insists on staying. This truce seems both exhilarating & sad, brave & pathetic, potentially revolutionary but perhaps meaningless, a peek behind the mirror to what might have been, an moment when fratricide flips over to expose fraternity then back again. Poignant.  The moment when the artillery shell’s whistle is silenced by the gong of a bell --- a sound of a bell’s ringing that keeps reverberating,  moving outward, into a vast hollowness of time & morality, a ringing that keeps asking, “Is this necessary?” The bell asks what Wilfred Owen asked, “Was it for this the clay grew tall?”  Is this peace only to be a sad hiatus in war, a Hallmark moment,  or can peace be made the foundational structure of society, culture and economy, the way war is now?

We know that for killing like this to go on, people have to see the enemy as the other --- dehumanized, objectified, demonized. In the Christmas Truce we see both sides simultaneously release each other and themselves from that objectification. They greet the human enemy as the human brother. When Jesus said Love your Enemy, this is what he meant. Jesus meant see your enemy as a full human being, just as you would like to be seen. When you refuse to dehumanize, non-violent solutions are possible. To take off your mask and the mask of your enemy is a moment of courage and high emotion. The emotion is as high as the relief is profound. Enormous social, psychological and financial energy is expended keeping our masks in place. We weep to see the full humans underneath.

But how easily the released soldiers flip back. How is that possible? A break in the clouds reveals sunlight, blue sky, bird song and just as quickly it’s gone. A mass social psychosis experiences a sudden miraculous remission  and then, just as suddenly, resumes. Turbid waters clear --- Oh, my god! It’s as though I can see your soul! --- and abruptly muddy again. The business of war resumes. Peace is a one day vacation. War the vocation.

Seen in this light  the Christmas Truce should perhaps not comfort us at all, nor be a cause for hope. Peace is glimpsed as an imaginary alternative reality, teases us, weakens our knees, draws out our tears with its beautiful possibility and … disappears. War is the default. What is bothersome is that the soldiers who have witnessed months of brutish killing free themselves from the chains of demonization, then willingly re-chain themselves. Why didn’t they lay down their arms, refuse to participate in war’s insanity, and walk away?  Could a good organizer have convinced soldiers to confront their officers and refuse to fight?  There were lots of workers on both sides. What if a German union organizer had met his English counterpart during the truce and they had seized the moment, both sides realized their common oppression & walked away? Jim HIghtower says, “The opposite of courage is not cowardice, it’s conformity.” Courage brought the first two soldiers out of the trenches to greet one another, peer pressure helped bring out the rest. Might courage, education and peer pressure have been used to keep them from using their guns again?

Even though I ask these questions, I am still overwhelmed by the incredible emotion the event stirs. So I am reminded how easily we can be manipulated by this kind of emotion, to associate it with a brand of chocolate which we buy to prolong the emotion. Sainsbury says all Christmas profits from the chocolate sales are going to support the Royal British Legion which supports veterans and their families. That’s nice but misleading. What about all the other sales of their products increased by their PR coup of associating themselves with the Christmas Truce?  I would rather see them using the proceeds to promote a conference on peacemaking, on exploring the true history of the Christmas Truce. What role did profits, not from chocolate, but for the arms dealers and investment bankers, have in maintaining and prolonging the war? If it was fear of discipline and peer pressure that kept the soldiers fighting, can people be educated to not be so easily controlled? If Sainsbury and the Royal British Legion really wanted to do something for veterans, they would organize to end war, courageously attack the cause of the problem rather than sell chocolate to sweeten the effect.

Accompanying Sainsbury’s Christmas Truce video are two videos explaining the research they did and their noble intent. In one of them Alan Weaver, a World War I author, says, “...what matters is the message which the whole event [the truce] carries, which is, you know, even at the toughest of times, in the midst of war and in the most dreadful occasions, there can be great humanity.” That may be true, but only a corner off the chocolate bar of truth. If that’s the only lesson we take away from this event, what have we learned?  Of what purpose was that ‘great humanity’ if it did nothing to stem the progress of the war? As far as we know, on December 26, 1914, Jim shot a hole in Otto’s head while he was savoring the last bit of Jim’s chocolate. Officers on both sides saw just enough of that ‘great humanity’ to make sure that it never happened again. Fraternity was treason.

All of us need to be thinking about how to build societies and economies around peace not war. So that war becomes the anomaly. So that peace is the vocation. If, in the midst of peace, a one day war broke out, we would feel confident that tomorrow we would return to the status quo.  We would not look at each other, baffled, and say, I wish that war could have lasted. We would not weep for that one one miraculous day when we all tried to kill each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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