Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

12/25/14 #1: A Highly Improbable Peace

Today is the hundredth anniversary of the World War I Christmas Truce, where a hundred thousand German and Allied soldiers left trenches, ventured into no-man's-land, played football, and sang carols.

Illustration from the 1915 London News: Allied and German soldiers fraternizing in no-man's-land.

This year, one of the speakers at the university Carols Services mentioned this fact, and attendees were provided with both English and German lyrics, to sing their choice. The resulting mess didn't have much in the way of distinct words, but the tune was unmistakeable and powerful, and there was something profoundly humbling about singing it in the Memorial Church, erected in honor of the men who gave their lives in that war and the next.

(Crimson photo gallery of the service -- you can spot the back of my head in the first photo if you look hard.)

There's something otherworldly about the idea, isn't there? -- that there was a day of the year where (literally) mortal enemies could treat each other as humans. Do you think that the warriors of the right and the left could keep such a peace in the battlegrounds of Facebook and Twitter today?

I can hope, but I can't hope confidently...

And, strangely enough, we're also currently in the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the American Civil War (We're 100 years from WWI and only 150 from the Civil War? What?), which drove Longfellow to write: "It was as if an earthquake rent the hearth-stones of a continent... There is no peace on earth... for hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men."

But of course, that's not the end of the poem, which reads in full:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
    and wild and sweet
    The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
    Had rolled along
    The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
    A voice, a chime,
    A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
    And with the sound
    The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
    And made forlorn
    The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
    “For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

There have been several musical arrangements of the words over the years, but for some absurd reason, every one on YouTube scrambles the order of the stanzae and/or skips 4 and 5 -- which is a shame, because the version sung by the Harvard University Choir, which was simply an arrangement of the words as written, was shivers-inducing and perfect and probably more moving than the Stille Nacht moment.

It's things like this that keep drawing me back to church services this time of year, even if the object-level religious message isn't doing much for me nowadays.