‘Twas the night before Christmas, and although the night’s sky was clear and the horizon silent, his thoughts were alive and clattering with memories of home. He remembered his mother’s fresh bread slowly rising while he and his sisters sat impatiently waiting for the eventual feast around the crooked wooden table of their home. He could hear his mother’s voice, it said, “Aiden, don’t go; please, my boy.” But Aiden had to leave, it was his sworn duty. He didn’t ask for the war, but he didn’t hide from it either.
His childhood friend, Colin, had signed the paper before he had; sadly, before Aiden was able to complete his basic training, he learned that Colin had died on the Western front some time in May. The war suddenly became more than just a smudged headline that boasted from the rustic fibers of a newspaper.
Aiden’s mother begged her youngest boy not to leave, but she knew he had to – that he wanted to – so, she sequestered her protestations to a reticent corner of her weary mind, leaned in and kissed her baby boy on the cheek before he boarded the train on that cold, crisp autumn morning.
A few fleeting months later, and Aiden was now where Colin had been – the Western front. A patch of land that had been anathematized by craterous cut-outs from a monotony of cacophonous shelling gifted to mother earth from both warring sides. Aiden’s home had become a laceration into the landscape that was barely arm’s width. He lived, slept, dined and bathed in the mud. In the mornings, the mud had crusted over by a thin layer of blood-stained ice. He hadn’t seen the natural color of his nailbeds in what felt like forever. “This God-damned mud, this fucking cold,” he would think to himself on each passing day.
On this day, Christmas eve, he was on sentry duty; this meant having to sit in an uncomfortable, makeshift pillbox comprised of craggy wooden sticks and stone, held together by – you guessed it – more mud. He was also a ways from the living quarters of the trench; in an attempt at keeping the smell of rotting death off of their food and shell-scrapes, they moved as many bodies and body parts to one section of the trenches… currently, his section.
Behind him lay a staggering stack of unfortunate souls that days earlier had lived, laughed, loved and were loved. Now, they were sometimes used as cover when the enemy threw staccatos of machine gun fire across no-man’s land. If you weren’t careful, one of these indiscriminate metal projectiles would clip you, maybe even kill you. Aiden became skilled at moving quickly with his head down while ensuring not to bob up and down like those indolent banker’s on Bay street. There wasn’t much room to move while in the trenches, so you have to plan you routes accordingly.
Aiden cast concentrated gapes across the desolate graveyard of no-man’s land, scanning for enemy movement. Sometimes, when tired enough, the shadows began to dance in the form of enemy silhouettes, causing some soldiers to open fire at nothing at all.
Aiden couldn’t help but think of home and then find rage at the juxtaposition of thought versus reality. All around him were skeletal frames of wounded trees, twisted razor wire and corpses of man and horse laying side by side. Equals in death, he thought. A sadness creeped along the boney prominents of his spine before bleeding into his thoughts. He thought of Colin; was he out there? Somewhere amidst all this madness? Was he too lain beneath a blanket of decaying mud and sinew? Where are you, friend… When his eyes began to burn, he knew that he was about to cry, so, with the stoic disposition of a soldier, he shifted his thoughts to some place else; home.
He thought of his sister, Sandra, wondered if she and James had gotten married yet – he was still awaiting letters from home. He thought of Liza, she was supposed to start school soon after he had left for Europe. He thought of his mum, his dear worrisome mum; he hoped that she was doing okay. He also thought of warmer days. There was a heavy and unnerving chill that saturated the battlefield. The winter had been unforgiving thus far, almost as if mother earth was voicing her contention towards current affairs. Not much they could do though, neither side was willing to give in. Too much was at stake – so more men would die – this for certain.
As he rested his aching forearms against a patch of freezing dirt, pointing his weapon ominously towards the enemy in the ethereal distance, he could see that the sky had began to let loose the ash of winter with a crescendo of falling snow. With enough snow, maybe the mud and the dead would be hidden, maybe this place could be beautiful, he thought.
As he was about to pull his gaze from the front, and search for his crackers, he heard a faint sound sneak in from the far distance. His neck froze in rigid tension, his eyes refused to blink, his ears perked back like a cat waiting to pounce. He opened his mouth and dropped his jaw slightly so as to allow more sound to enter his frost-bitten ears. Was the enemy getting ready to attack? What was that? It sounded like… like… no, couldn’t have been… After several moments of nothing but dead air and groaning trees, he began to feel as though what he had heard was a fabrication of tired mind. He began to relax his shoulders and no sooner after doing so, the sound pierced through the open space of no-man’s land and slapped his ears once more!
It was clear this time, he could hear it plain as day – but what he was hearing made no sense to him. Because of this, he began to question his own sanity and grasp of reality. He pushed some skin of his inner cheek between his upper and lower teeth and began to clench so as to induce pain – he wanted to know if he had fallen asleep while on guard – he hadn’t. What he was hearing was really happening…
Not visible to the eye, but unremarkably clear to the ear; men singing. Softly, subtly and calmly, men singing. But not just men, Germans. The Germans were singing from their trench line. What the fuck?! Aiden was now joined by his section commander, he too must have heard the obfuscating chorus of German voices. Perhaps more shocking and unsettling, was the fact that the subtle little tune being orated poetically into the air was familiar to the boys of the west – “Sir, that sounds like – like, Silent Night?” The officer said nothing, but it was obvious that he heard that too. Aiden looked around him to see that many more soldiers had joined him at his position.
“How long has this been going on for, Private?”
“Sir, I – I just started to hear it now. I thought I was hearing things!”
“You are – we all are…” The officer replied. The clamoring voices did not sound threatening nor sinister, Aiden thought. He would never voice it aloud and would only admit it years later to his wife before she passed, but it almost sounded comforting, beautiful and warm.
The gaggle of apprehensive allies stood in place, listening as the singing continued without end. There was no protocol nor strategy for dealing with angelic enemies. From Private’s to Major’s, they all just stood like statues with expressions of disbelief.
That disbelief only intensified when another voice broke into song; a voice much closer and more recognizable to them – the voice of their Chaplin, Captain William Guy. His voice started in a low, soothing baritone before ascending into alto. All heads turned while their bodies remained cemented into place. They watched in amazement as the Chaplin joined in with the far-off distant hymn of the enemy.
He stopped singing after one part, and so to had the Germans. There was a silence that seemed uncomfortable and lasting. That was of course until the Chaplin’s voice rhythmically bellowed once more in continuation of the Christmas tune. Only now the Chaplin was no longer stood within the relative safety of the trenches. To the horror and cries of the non-commissioned and officers alike, the Chaplin was standing upright and tall above the trench line. He was fully exposed and could be hit with sniper fire so easily from that position that even a blind German would have killed him. He continued singing, louder and louder so as to drown out the desperate pleas of his fellow brothers-in-arms. He just ignored them and kept belting out the words;
Silent night, holy night. All is calm…
All of a sudden, the frantic and competing voices of all the other soldiers were shhh’ed by another veteran officer. The protesting voices died down and to everyone’s surprise, off into the distance, the Germans could be heard singing once more. They had joined in with the Chaplin.
Aiden looked passed the falling flakes of sky and tried to see where if anywhere that the Germans might be.
“Wholly shit, Cap’ LOOK!” Aiden shouted while pointing outward from his position. The wide-eyed gazes of the other soldiers followed the direction of his pointed fingers; and as if to defy reason and logic, off in the distance, a blue hazed silhouette of what appeared to be a lone German soldier, standing above his trench line – their Chaplin.
Amid slight yet somewhat less boisterous appeal, the Chaplin began walking across the wounded lands towards the shadowy singer.
The soldiers watched as the figures neared one another and collectively gasped in absolute disbelief when the once shadow man met with the Chaplin and they exchanged an embrace of peace to one another – they were hugging.
Aiden couldn’t believe it, neither could anyone else. What followed next was almost just as surreal… more soldiers from either side began melting away from the security of their respective trenches.
On that cold, snowy Christmas eve day, East and West, German and ally met man to man atop of a land designed for no human to stand. They embraced one another as brother. The shared coffee, tea, chocolates and stories of home with one another. The learned that their enemies looked just like themselves. On that day on the western front, the loudest sound to be heard, was the collectively euphonious sounds of song. It rang through the air and trundled atop the land bellowing;
We wish you a Merry Christmas And A Happy New Year.
And that, my friends, is a Christmas Story.