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A Wednesday night event celebrates a moment from one hundred years ago, and it's something that speaks to our time. Christmas Eve, Wednesday, December 24, at 5 pm in Santa Monica, ROSS ALTMAN & FRIENDS will perform in memory of a moment that still shines for us, through the mists of a full century past, from a time of carnage and smoke and brutality and misery. It was a moment when people found within themselves the best of things in the worst of times.

Christmas Eve Truce

Even with the coming of Christmas a hundred years ago, World War I was filled with disorienting new things. It was Franz Kafka meets the Industrial Revolution – it hadn’t yet become the high carnival of hell on earth. As 1914, the war’s first year, came to a conclusion, nothing else about the war appeared ready to stop. And yet, its trench warfare was still novel to those caught in it.

Though sticking your head up above the trench would get you killed instantly, there had been some youthful, cheerful fraternizing between opposing armies on both the Western and Eastern Fronts. It was probably borne of youth and an empathy that we cannot imagine. Knowing the misery of ubiquitously immobilizing, even entrapping mud, and living, inescapably, mired into the trenches – trenches whose bottoms were open toilets – was a shared experience. So why hate each other for it?

Good natured taunts. Songs. Tunes on bugles or other instruments – the trenches were rarely very far apart – were characteristic of the first months of war.

But nothing ever had happened, in any war, like what happened on Christmas Eve 1914. Soldiers of both sides began by entertaining the other side with a round of Christmas Carols. The Germans raised Christmas Trees above their embattlements, whatever shreds of trees could be found brought-in from a short distance behind their lines. They decorated them with pieces of food tins and scraps of shiny metal, and in the German fashion, placed lit candles in them. They illuminated their little trees with battle lanterns, as they risked hoisting them into the air above the trenches, the space that could so easily become a deadly horizontal hail of bullets. And they sang “Silent Nacht.” Not just to themselves. But to their enemies. The Brits heard, and listened. In return, they sang, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” More songs followed.

Before long, both sides left their trenches. Many soldiers emerged singing. All made their ways through the tangles of barbed wire, until, wearing the uniforms of enemies, they met in the deadly middle ground, the killing zone of “No-Man’s Land.”

Before long, both sides left their trenches. Many soldiers emerged singing. All made their ways through the tangles of barbed wire, until, wearing

the uniforms of enemies, they met in the deadly middle ground, the killing zone of “No-Man’s Land.” There, they exchanged small gifts, soldiers’ gifts of uniform insignia, decks of playing cards, newspapers and magazines. One British soldier traded for the infamous German spiked helmet. Young soldiers. Youthful idealism before an endless war would diminish it into cynical assessment of a “Lost Generation.”

That Christmas in that deadly space, they showed one another the pictures of wives and children and sweethearts and mothers. And they shared camaraderie, slaps on the back, shoulder clasps, food – and peace.

An enduring legend later began that they played a game of soccer (football). It didn’t, simply because the ground was so ripped to pieces from artillery explosions, shrapnel, and debris. British survivors recalled “there had been an effort to organize it, but it didn’t come off,” and newspapers reported the score of the match that never happened, feeding the legend. Still, you cannot discount that if anyone had a soccer ball, the soldiers, freed from confinement in the trenches, probably kicked it around.

The scene of the Christmas Truce was not a singularity. It happened in many places all along the trenches of the front lines. And it so alarmed the high commands of each of the armies that, once it was ended, massive artillery bombardments were conducted by units brought up from the rear, units that had not taken part in the impromptu Christmas truce. Orders went out that any further fraternization was treason and participants would be shot. Some commanders hoped that every soldier who had met in peace in No-Man’s Land would be killed in the bombardments. The following Easter, at one place on the lines, a small truce happened after commanders had forbidden it, and soldiers of one side received Easter Baskets from their foes.

Ahead, World War I would be characterized by unprecedented carnage, with U-boats sinking passenger ships, land mines, poison gas, aerial bombing, mass assaults of soldiers from their own trenches meeting murderous machine-gun fire from the opposing trenches, and finally, exhaustion of the human supply of people to be killed, and battalions of new mechanized self-propelled weapons called tanks finally breaking stalemates.

No one had believed it could be so horrible. For those who had survived it, no one believed anything like it could ever happen again. They were wrong. But for one night, one silent night when the guns were stilled, the better angels of our natures had prevailed.

A fine video with intercut scenes from films is “The Christmas Truce” by history teacher SCOTT MacKENZIE, based on his reading of a soldier’s letter home about the Christmas Truce and traditional carols backing it; a must-see, it’s at:

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Singer-songwriter JOHN McCUTCHEON wrote the definitive musical tribute to that night, and his song inspired a movie. The song is “Christmas in the Trenches.” Ross Altman will perform it Wednesday night. You can find several video versions of McCutcheon performing it, some with historic photos. We recommend this one:

The song is also available as audio-only, with printed lyrics, at:

“World War I: The Christmas Truce,” a History Channel documentary, is a fine telling of what happened. It’s there in its 44:49 entirety, at:

FOR FIRST-HAND ACCOUNTS, ON VIDEO, FROM SOLDIERS WHO WERE THERE, the BBC made a moving documentary titled, “Peace in No Mans Land - The Christmas Truce – Amnesty,” that runs 55 minutes. It’s free, at:

Also, for more music that captures the essence of the soldier’s experience of World War I, listen to “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” written by Eric Bogle in 1971 and performed by JOHN McDERMOTT and THE IRISH ROVERS, with a photo montage of WWI. It’s about the Gallipoli campaign:

Wednesday’s event is at the Quaker Meeting House, 1440 Harvard St, Santa Monica 90404.

For more on the live event, contact Ross Altman at

Larry Wines