From the 19th century.

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I suppose this Hallmark version of Christmas never existed. It’s one of those memory implants, like the ones in Blade Runner. We seem to share a common delusion – or maybe it’s a common hope.

The reality of the holiday makes me happy and sad. I think I said all I had to say in my 2006 review of the film Joyeux Noel

Human societies seem to have some common rules, one of which is that the young men must kill or be killed for whatever causes the old men have brainwashed them to believe. This is a movie about one of the few times in our history when the warriors told their overlords to stuff it, if only for a moment. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 1914, during the first sacred holiday of the first world war, the trench warriors set aside their rifles, ignored their orders, and walked into the no-man’s land to celebrate Christmas with their enemies.

As the film pictures it, the Germans first put Christmas trees up just above their sight lines, with signs that said “you no shoot, we no shoot” or “Merry Christmas.” Then the Scots brought out their ubiquitous bagpipes and played Christmas carols. The French broke out their champagne. The men shared pictures of their loved ones. They roasted some pigs together for Christmas dinner, and their chaplains held Christmas religious ceremonies. They cleared no-man’s land of the rotten corpses, buried their fallen comrades, and helped their enemies to do the same. When they had cleared away their dead, they played soccer where the bodies had been strewn.

This movie is a fictionalized account of the events of those two days. Peace broke out in many places along the lines, but this story centers on three lieutenants who commanded about a hundred men near a small French village, as well as two German opera singers who were there to lift the men’s morale. While the fictional portions are not especially compelling, and the historical details are not entirely accurate, the film is poignant because the basic non-fictional core is so powerful that it hides any flaws in the film’s fictional overlay. I suppose one could make a better movie on the same subject, but this is a very good movie indeed. It was nominated for the foreign language Oscar as well as the corresponding BAFTA. Don’t let those nominations create an image in your mind of a typical foreign film. Most of the dialogue is in English, and anything important which is not in English can be understood without sub-titles, since it involves many men communicating to one another without a common language. I watched the film this morning, on Christmas Day. If you can do that and keep your eyes dry, you’re a much tougher hombre than I am. You may not even be human.

If the part of the movie which shows the Scots wearing their kilts and carrying their bagpipes in the frozen trenches seems to stretch your credulity, let me offer a story which, while it does not prove that such a thing did happen, shows that it could have. I had a girlfriend from Central Asia who used to be a mountain-climbing guide in that region. If you have ever climbed, you know that you do not want one extra ounce of weight on your person. If you can make it up and down a mountain with two crackers and a vitamin pill, you do not want to add a third cracker. Every yard up the mountain seems to double the weight of the load. Yet one of her tourists insisted on carrying bagpipes up a Central Asian mountain so he could play them at the summit!

The real-life aftermath of the unpremeditated Christmas truce was shock among the high commands of the opposing nations. Nothing could be more disastrous for the world’s sense of proper order than to have young men of opposing countries declaring their comradeship and refusing to kill one another. Why, it’s downright socialist! Generals on both sides declared this peacemaking to be treasonous, and all the lingering goodwill generated by the spontaneous outbreak of peace had been completely quashed by Easter of 1915, when the men would again resume the unquestioned killing of one another on behalf of their common God, who had apparently issued the two sides contradictory orders. Before Armistice Day in 1918, an entire European generation was lost. Some thirty million young men would return to their homes wounded. Their mothers would be envied by the ten million others whose sons did not return at all.

In a time when many young men are still dying for old men’s causes, it gives some hope to look back on that Christmas of 1914 and recall the foot soldiers who proved that, despite all indications to the contrary, we do have brotherhood within us, if only we reach for it.