It was the “War to end all wars” and it seemed to go on forever, though it actually ran from July 1914 to November 11, 1918. During the four Christmas celebrations encompassed by the War – a time when leading men of the cloth decried the killing of “Christian men by Christian men” those same Christian men retained their Christianity, at least for a few hours on Christmas Day.
Thumbing through the pages of The New York Times you could read about the Christmas trees that appeared in the trenches, decorated to a varying degree to be sure, but there nonetheless throughout the War. Many of those trees (some 5,000,000 of them, known as “treelets”) were sent by official government post from the UK in time for Christmas 1915.
But it was the first Christmas in the field, in 1914, that revealed the human side of men on both sides of the lines. It was the Germans who started it, placing their little candle-lit trees on the ground about their trenches. At first, the Allies shot at a few of them but, when they heard the singing – in German, of course, but to tunes, they all knew such as Silent Night – they stopped their shooting and began singing along. They posted crude signs that read “Merry Christmas” and “You no shoot, we no shoot” and the next thing you knew peace broke out. Allied and German soldiers exchanged gifts of chocolate and tobacco and other treats. Some played soccer. But all sang.
It lasted in many places until the generals made them resume fighting, often not until New Year’s and often then with the bullets aimed carefully at the stars.
By the Christmas of 1918, the Christmas trees were often obtained by Yanks at the same “Weihnachtsmarkt” or Christmas Market as those destined to reside in the homes of local Germans who lived in recently captured American territory. One amazed Times correspondent via “special cable” wrote that those trees in the area of the Rhine might also be decorated with the same tinsel – given to the Yanks by local residents of Coblenz who were delighted that the War was over.