The Christmas Truce of 1914

This article was originally published on the centenary of the truce at theJesusQuestion.org. Because 2018 marks a hundred years since the end of World War I and two hundred years since the composition of the carol “Silent Night,” I thought it appropriate to bring it out of the vault. 

On Christmas Eve 1914, along the four-hundred-mile Western Front of World War I, a famous ceasefire took place, as enemy soldiers spontaneously emerged from their trenches, arms laid aside, to celebrate Christ’s birth together. They sang carols, exchanged gifts (jams and candies, cigarettes, newspapers), kicked around a soccer ball, and shared photos of loved ones. They also buried each other’s dead and prayed communally over the bodies, led by chaplains. Some even exchanged home addresses and promised to visit after the war.

One soldier described it in a letter home as “the Wonderful Day.” Another soldier, Pvt. Karl Muhlegg, wrote, “Never was I as keenly aware of the insanity of war.”

Though temporary truces are not unique in military history (they have been recorded since as far back as the Trojan War), never have they been carried out on such a large scale, and accompanied by such fraternization, as that of the Christmas Truce of 1914. Remarkably, this truce grew out of no single initiative but sprang up independently in many of the camps, against the orders of higher-ups. In most places it lasted from Christmas Eve through Boxing Day (December 26), though in some it lasted into January. It is estimated that some 100,000 men took part.

Inspired by this event, French filmmaker Christian Carion wrote and directed a dramatized film version of it, called Joyeux Nöel, which was nominated in 2006 for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The film focuses on three different regiments—one Scottish, one French, and one German—and their interactions with one another during that first Christmas on the front.

The pivotal scene, in which the truce is initiated, shows a conscripted German opera singer singing “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) in his trench. The Scottish, stationed downfield, hear the distant song and start playing an accompaniment on bagpipes, which piques the attention of the French. Throughout the song, the German becomes more and more engaged: aware now of a listening audience across the void, he turns around, performing toward them. After the song, all three sides applaud, giving the opera singer the courage to step out of his trench and into No Man’s Land, singing “Adeste Fideles” (O Come, All Ye Faithful)—in Latin, the universal language of the church—and holding up a mini lit Christmas tree as a sign of peace.  Continue reading “The Christmas Truce of 1914”

Roundup: Short films on love and loss, Ashmolean Advent calendar, and more

ALBUM REVIEW: Hebrews by Psallos: My first published article for The Gospel Coalition! Psallos is a music collective led by Cody Curtis, and they’re doing amazing work—musically adapting entire New Testament epistles for folk rock band and chamber orchestra. (I reviewed the group’s first major album, Romans, two and a half years ago.) The track “Ex Paradiso” interprets John Piper’s favorite Advent text and implements a clever twist on Fauré’s Requiem. You’ll also hear a few other famous musical quotations, including, in track 3, “Angels We Have Heard on High”—again, with a lyrical twist—and a jarring rendition of “Nothing but the Blood.” Curtis is a wonderfully talented and versatile composer, writing in styles from bluegrass and Irish dance to slow hip-hop and hot jazz, all united under one overarching structure. The “Before the Throne” theme that’s developed throughout is truly sublime.

+++

ANNOTATED BOOK LIST: “Art and theology” books published in 2018: I put together this compilation for ArtWay, so the emphasis is on visual art. I’ve already featured a few of the books on the blog, like Wounded in Spirit and The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest, but there are over a dozen more, a mix of academic and nonacademic. These include, among others, a large reference work on early Christian art; books on individual artists William Blake and Keith New; two books by Jeremy Begbie, which emphasize the need for biblically grounded creedal orthodoxy in discussions on the arts; and two books on the modern illuminated Saint John’s Bible—one of which (Illuminating Justice by Jonathan Homrighausen) was just named among the top twelve theology books of the year by the Englewood Review of Books. Like Homrighausen, art historian Heidi J. Hornik also links art and ethics, in her book The Art of Christian Reflection. Created: Bridging the Gap between Your Art and Your Creator is probably the most unique offering; published by Likable Art design studio, it features sixty-two responses to the question “What are your first five words to the world of artists?,” and edgy graphic designs.

Art and Theology books 2018

Let me know if I’m missing any titles. For book lists from previous years, see 2014–16 and 2017.

+++

ANIMATED SHORTS

Lost & Found (2018): Widely lauded at film festivals since its debut earlier this year, Lost & Found is an endearing stop-motion film that chronicles a dramatic turning point in the relationship between two crocheted animal toys, a fox and a dinosaur. Since finding each other in the lost-and-found bin of a Japanese restaurant, it was love. But when the fox topples into a fountain, the dinosaur must sacrifice himself, yarn by yarn, to save her. Directed by Andrew Goldsmith and Bradley Slabe.

Bao (2018): This computer-animated short film, written and directed by Domee Shi and produced by Pixar, premiered on June 15 with Incredibles 2. It’s about a lonely, aging Chinese Canadian mother, suffering from empty-nest syndrome, who receives an unexpected second chance at motherhood when she makes a dumpling that comes to life as a boy. “I was that overprotected little dumpling,” Shi said in an interview; this project, she said, was her attempt to try to better understand her mother. One of the strongest powers of film, I’ve always thought, is its ability to incite empathy. (Update, 12/25: It appears that this film was being offered for free online viewing for only a very limited time, as it is now behind a paywall: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypEuSSwB1Rk.)

Bao (2018)

+++

DAILY ART: 2018 Advent Calendar by the Ashmolean Museum: I know the season’s almost over, but it’s still worth checking out this free online calendar published by the Ashmolean, an art and archaeology museum in Oxford. Each day of December, they’ve been revealing a different winter- or Christmas-themed object from their collection. Entries thus far have included a bronze “reindeer” brooch from second-century Amiens, a decorated star tile from thirteenth-century Iran, a winter kimono with a design of snowy pines, an ivory netsuke in the form of a boy rolling a yuki-daruma (snowman), and a Delftware tile depicting three ships a-sailing. I dig this creative idea for public engagement! I’ve seen art museums do Pinterest boards, but this is the first time I’ve seen an Advent calendar.

Below I’ve reproduced the etching from Day 2, Epiphany, which F. L. Griggs made to celebrate the end of World War I one hundred years ago. A tall memorial crucifix stands atop a triple bridge, towering over roofless homes and illuminated by bright starlight. The Latin inscription translates as “The King of Peace whom the whole world desireth to see, hath shown His greatness. The King of Peace hath shown His greatness above all kings of the whole Earth.” Griggs’s son would die in World War II.

Epiphany by Frederick Landseer Maur Griggs
Frederick Landseer Maur Griggs (British, 1876–1938), Epiphany, 1918–19. Etching, 17.3 × 12.5 cm. Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford, England.

+++

WALTZING MARBLES: Kinetic artist Mark Robbins of DoodleChaos made a series of Rube Goldberg-like contraptions with blocks and magnets and set a marble rolling along it to Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker, with other marbles later joining the dance. The synchronization is perfect! I got such a kick out of this.

ESSAY: “Where Sorrow and Pain Are No More” by Margaret Adams Parker

Last summer when participating in a two-week Calvin College seminar, I was providentially assigned to room with Margaret (Peggy) Adams Parker, a sculptor and printmaker who lives, as it so happens, just an hour south of me! Peggy’s enthusiasm—for God, for life, for art—is infectious. She possesses such deep joy, and yet she feels so deeply the hurts of the world. She is attentive, as all good artists must be. “I feel called as an artist to bear witness to the world I see around me and also to the ways I understand that world,” Peggy wrote in an ArtWay feature. “This yields not only images of beauty and tenderness, but also images of suffering and terror.” She regards her art as a means of prayer.

The recipient of numerous church and seminary commissions, Peggy majors on religious and social justice themes. Her sculpture Mary as Prophet won a 2016 honor award from the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art, and Architecture. In addition to maintaining a studio practice and doing shows, Peggy serves as an adjunct instructor at Virginia Theological Seminary, teaching such courses as “Encountering Scripture through the Visual Arts” and “The Artist as Theologian.” She also writes for various publications, including ARTS: The Arts in Religious and Theological Studies and the Anglican Theological Review, and collaborated on the book project Who Are You, My Daughter? Reading Ruth through Image and Text. She is currently working on a Saint Andrew sculpture group. To learn more about Peggy and view more of her work, visit her website, www.margaretadamsparker.com.

By way of further introduction, here is an essay Peggy wrote ten years ago for the book Heaven, ed. Roger Ferlo (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), pp. 158–66. It is reproduced by kind permission of the publisher.

“Where Sorrow and Pain Are No More”

by Margaret Adams Parker

To be honest, I’ve never thought much about heaven, at least in any systematic fashion. I was interested enough to pick up, at some point, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis’s allegory of heaven and hell. And I’ve been known to joke about my expectations that heaven had better have a comprehensively stocked art studio, as well as a fabulous bookstore.

But in looking back though many years of making art and also teaching about art at a Christian seminary, I’ve unearthed a great deal about heaven, although not in the expected places. I haven’t glimpsed heaven among the many imagined depictions, ranging from medieval woodcuts to the visual speculations of twentieth-century outsider artists. I’m simply not drawn to “visionary” images. These are not the kinds of images I make. Instead, my image of heaven is distinctly negative (theologians would call it apophatic). I have no vision of what heaven is like. But I have seen, and I have also made, pictures of what heaven is not.

I am a concrete thinker, and so my art is earthbound, far from visionary. I’ve always understood the incarnational nature of Christianity as a charge to take seriously life in this world. What’s more, my two great artistic mentors—Rembrandt and Käthe Kollwitz—were rarely given to visions. Rather, their work was grounded in the physical, spiritual, and social realities of life. Such symbols as they used (most notably Kollwitz’s use of the skeleton to represent death) served to underscore their understanding of human existence as it is. They recorded moments as small as a child learning to walk and as momentous as war or revolution. Even when picturing the incarnation, that most heavenly of earthly events, both artists showed the miracle taking place in a tangible human setting.

Consider some of these two artists’ characteristic images. Rembrandt’s drawings testify powerfully to his all-encompassing interest in the life around him. He depicted everyone he saw—beggars and merchants, rabbis and serving girls—with the same probing yet sympathetic scrutiny. His drawings of his wife Saskia constitute a particularly poignant record: we watch as she endures four pregnancies, suffers the deaths of three infants, and finally dies at thirty, a short nine years after their betrothal. We glimpse her first in a silverpoint drawing (1633), made the week of their engagement. In this love poem in line, Rembrandt shows us a winsome young woman, resting her cheek lightly against her hand, dangling in her other hand one of the flowers that also adorn her straw hat. In a pen and ink drawing made four years later (1637), Saskia lies in bed, supporting her head heavily on her hand, staring out with a weary and resigned expression. And in the image that Rembrandt sketched on a tiny etching plate the year Saskia died (1642), she has become an old woman, worn, gaunt, and desperately ill.

Portrait of Saskia as a Bride
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Portrait of Saskia as a Bride, 1633. Silverpoint on parchment, 18.5 × 10.7 cm (7 3/10 × 4 1/5 in.). Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin. Inscription (trans.): “This was portrayed after my wife when she was 21 years old, the third day after we were married. June 8, 1633.”
Saskia in Bed
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Saskia in Bed, ca. 1637. Pen and brown ink, 8.4 × 10.4 cm (8 3/10 × 10 1/10). British Museum, London.
Sick Woman with a Large White Headdress by Rembrandt
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Sick Woman with a Large White Headdress (Saskia), ca. 1642. Etching with touches of drypoint, 6 × 5.1 cm (2 3/8 × 2 in.).

Käthe Kollwitz’s imagery is more politically engaged. The daughter of a trained lawyer who chose to work as a builder rather than practice within the Prussian legal system, she spent her life depicting the plight of the poor and protesting the ravages of war. In her first great print series, A Weavers’ Rebellion (1897–98), she chronicled the causes, progression, and bloody aftermath of the 1844 revolt of Silesian home weavers against their employers. The series begins with Poverty (1894), where a family of weavers gathers around the deathbed of an infant, and concludes with The End (1897), where the bodies of slain revolutionaries are being laid out on the floor of a weaver’s cabin. In both of these dimly lit interiors, the looms and other apparatus of the weavers’ trade stand as ominous reminders of the weavers’ plight.   Continue reading “ESSAY: “Where Sorrow and Pain Are No More” by Margaret Adams Parker”