When World War I started in 1914, it was expected to be over by Christmas of the same year. Instead, soldiers spent their holidays in the trenches. In the collective memory of the war, soldiers in the trenches along the Western Front participated in a Christmas Truce, where they ceased fighting and enjoyed a game of football together. The story of the Christmas Truce evokes strong emotions of fellowship and acts as a reminder of our humanity even in times of conflict.
The historiography of World War I recognizes that the Christmas Truce is a historical myth. While there was fraternization between both sides on Christmas, the idea of a football game as perpetuated in the popular imagination is an exaggeration of the reality of Christmas along the Western Front in 1914. It is therefore to a greater extent that the myth of the Christmas Truce requires us to recognize the limitations of the symbolism of Christmas in times of war.
Agius (2008, p. 137) identifies a juxtaposition between Christmas and war. The former is experienced as a time of goodwill, used for “moral reflection”; the latter is experienced as “divorced from the positive notions of humanity” that are emphasized during Christmas (Agius 2008, p. 1370). Is it possible to reconcile these two themes, where the symbolism of Christmas can interrupt the brutal experiences of war?
The 1914 Christmas Truce between German and British soldiers along the Western Front presents an interesting case study to see how the ideas of Christmas and war interact. The celebration of Christmas was recognized as important to the soldier’s morale. Both German and British soldiers received Christmas gifts from their respective governments: German troops received gift boxes and small Christmas trees with candles and the British soldiers received Christmas cards and puddings (Wiedemann et al. 2021, p. 262). The sending of Christmas gifts to soldiers at the front represents how strong the symbolism of Christmas can be, even in times of war.
Agius (2008, p. 140) explains that the “celebration of Christmas becomes embedded in political and symbolic practices that affirm notions of identity”. For troops along the Western Front, the immediacy of trench warfare allowed the soldiers to realize that the other side was not so different from who they were themselves: they both shared the misery of war (Adams 2015, p. 1397).
Adams (2015, p. 1397) likewise recognizes that the soldiers shared common rituals and traditions around Christmas that further bolstered the sense of a shared identity. Wiedemann et al. (2021, p. 623) explain that the 1914 Christmas Truce involved the German and British soldiers singing carols, showing each other family pictures, and exchanging gifts.
The common beliefs of tradition and family in the symbolism of Christmas, therefore, led to an interruption in the experience of war, where either side did not recognize each other as enemies but as fellow human beings subjected to the same torment of war. Yet it must be recognized there are limitations to understanding how the symbolism of Christmas accurately depicts the events of the Truce.
The 1914 Christmas Truce is mainly known for the football match that supposedly occurred between the German and British troops on Christmas Day. The popular memory of a game has been found to be a myth; at most, the soldiers enjoyed “improvised kickabouts” (Wiedemann et al. 2021, p. 624). In reality, the local truth that occurred along the Western Front during the Christmas of 1914 was disapproved of by High Command on both sides, and troops were issued with warnings that forbade fraternization (Adams 2015, p. 1398).
Further, Wiedemann et al. (2021, p. 625) explain that after Christmas 1914, military command on both sides took action against the fraternizing between troops: The German military issued a memorandum to forbid fraternization, and the recovery of corpses from the other side was prohibited because it “did not contribute to the war spirit by increasing hate against those who killed the fellow”.
Therefore, on a closer examination, the myth of the 1914 Christmas Truce shows that the symbolism of Christmas cannot be reconciled with the experiences of war. Agius (2008, p. 148) recognizes that the rituals associated with Christmas can become important tools “ideologically and politically” in times of war.
This is true of the 1914 Christmas Truce: Military command sought to end the rituals being shared by soldiers because it promoted behavior that did not align with the destructive values of war.
Christmas became an ideological tool for the soldiers to communicate their shared humanity, but a political tool for military High Command who perceived these rituals as counterproductive to the war they were fighting.
The myth of the 1914 Christmas Truce, therefore, represents that the symbolism of Christmas cannot be reconciled with the experiences of war. The collective memory of World War I records a football match between British and German troops that were representative of shared humanity and symbolic of how troops understood the war as meaningless, so much so that the experience of war itself could be interrupted.
The reality of the event, where military High Command intervened to prevent fraternization between both sides, shows us that there are limitations to the symbolism of Christmas in times of war, to the extent that the themes of Christmas and war cannot be experienced together but do exist as juxtaposing forces.
Adams, I. (2015). A Game for Christmas? The Argylls, Saxons and Football on the Western Front, December 1914. The International Journal of the History of Sport, 32(11–12), 1395–1415. https://doi.org/10.1080/09523367.2015.1082084.
Agius, C. (2008). Christmas and War [E-book]. In S. Whiteley (Ed.), Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture (pp. 137–148). Edinburgh University Press.
Wiedemann, N. J. B., Pina E Cunha, M., & Clegg, S. R. (2019). Rethinking Resistance as an Act of Improvisation: Lessons from the 1914 Christmas Truce. Organization Studies, 42(4), 615–635. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840619882957.
A re-enactment of the 1914 Christmas Truce in Ploegsteert, Belgium. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/christmas-truce-of-1914-letter-from-trenches-shows-football-match-through-soldier-s-eyes-9942929.html.
Imperial War Museums. (1917, December 17). A British soldier holding up a can of Christmas pudding at snow-covered Neulette [Photograph]. Imperial War Museums. https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/voices-of-the-first-world-war-christmas-at-war.
Robson, H. & Imperial War Museums. (n.d.). British and German officers meeting in No-Man’s Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector)[Photograph]. Imperial War Museums. https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/voices-of-the-first-world-war-the-christmas-truce.