Fifty-three years ago this month, as US troops were fighting in Vietnam, John Lennon and Yoko Ono paid for billboards in cities across the United States that declared, “WAR IS OVER! If You Want It—Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.” The pair would continue their anti-war activism in the years that followed, eventually releasing the 1971 single “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” which has since become something of a holiday standard with its enduring message that peace is always more possible than the presidents and the prime ministers, the media moguls and the war profiteers, would have us believe.
The desire for peace is sometimes so strong that it can forestall conflict, or even bring a brief cessation of violence in the midst of a war. This is one of the reasons why the hope for a Christmas Truce in Ukraine persists, even as the fighting continues amid the rapid approach of the holiday.
More than 1,000 faith leaders, representing every major religious tradition in the United States and around the world, have signed onto a call for a temporary ceasefire in Ukraine.
They recognize the wisdom of the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, who planned to devote his Christmas Eve sermon to a moral call for a Christmas Truce. And of Medea Benjamin, a cofounder of the peace group CodePink, who reminds us, “Negotiation is not a euphemism for capitulation, nor is it a rationalization of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s aggression. It is simply a recognition that the end of this war cannot be achieved by more war. Any prospect for a pause in hostilities should be acted on.”
CodePink joined with the Fellowship of Reconciliation USA, the National Council of Elders, and the Peace in Ukraine Coalition to initiate the call for a Christmas Truce. The coalition is encouraging the Biden administration to take the lead in seeking a negotiated settlement—and the groups suggest that a Christmas Truce could serve as a place of beginning for the process of ending the war.
“As people of faith and conscience, believing in the sanctity of all life on this planet, we call for a Christmas Truce in Ukraine. In the spirit of the truce that occurred in 1914 during the First World War, we urge our government to take a leadership role in bringing the war in Ukraine to an end through supporting calls for a ceasefire and negotiated settlement, before the conflict results in a nuclear war that could devastate the world’s ecosystems and annihilate all of God’s creation,” reads the statement. The list of prominent religious and a social justice leaders who have signed on includes the Rev. Barber, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dr. Cornel West, the Rev. Liz Theoharis of the Kairos Center for Religion, Mary Novak of the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, the Rev. Jim Wallis of the Georgetown Center on Faith and Justice, Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Jewish Renewal movement, Dr. James Zogby of the Arab American Institute, Thay Phap An of the Plum Village Buddhist community, and the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson of the Reformed Church in America.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who on Wednesday visited Washington and addressed the US Congress, has spoken in recent weeks about the Christmas season as a time for dialing down tensions. “The holidays are ahead, celebrated by billions of people around the world: Christmas of the Gregorian calendar, New Year, Christmas of the Julian calendar,” he told a G7 gathering on December 12. “This is the time when normal people think about peace, not about aggression. I offer Russia the opportunity to at least try to demonstrate that they can abandon the way of aggression. It would be a right step to start withdrawing troops from internationally recognized borders of Ukraine this Christmas.”
But officials in Moscow have been dismissive of calls for troop withdrawals or a holiday ceasefire. And Ukrainians are understandably fearful that, without Russian approval, a truce could not take hold.
Despite the hurdles, however, advocacy for a Christmas Truce has gained traction with faith leaders and historians who recall past truces. “Whether it’s Christians around the world preparing for Christmas or Jews getting ready to celebrate the commemoration of the miracle of Hanukkah, all of the Abrahamic faiths embrace the prophetic voice of Isaiah who exhorted us to transform swords into plowshares,” says Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, a veteran civil rights activist and professor emerita from the University of Florida, who has been active with the National Council of Elders. “As we enter this winter holiday filled with prayers for peace and liberation, we are praying and acting for the same kind of miracle that over a century ago compelled the soldiers of WWI to put down their weapons and celebrate peace.”
The story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 is an inspiring one that I’ve written about before. It was for many years left out of the official histories of World War I. The British and German governments denied that the truce even took place. War historians neglected it. But those who participated remembered.
The last to recall the truce was Alfred Anderson, who died in 2005 at age 109. Younger generations turned to Anderson, who in 1914 was an 18-year-old soldier with the British Army, for confirmation of what was called “a short peace in a terrible war.”
Anderson spoke in interviews before his death about how, on December 25, 1914, “there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted ‘Merry Christmas,’ even though nobody felt merry.”
The calls of “Merry Christmas” from the Brits were answered by Germans singing their traditional Christmas song, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.” The Brits responded by singing “Silent Night” in English. Then, from the opposite trenches climbed a German soldier who held a small tree lit with candles and shouted in broken English, “Merry Christmas. We not shoot. You not shoot.”
Thus began the Christmas Truce of 1914. Initiated by the soldiers themselves, it saw combatants from both armies—more than a million in all—climb from the trenches to exchange cigarettes and military badges. To play soccer, they used the helmets as goalposts. And they did not rush to again take up arms. Along some stretches of the Western Front, the truce lasted into January 1915.
Eventually, distant commanders forced the fighting to begin anew. Thus it has ever been with wars: Politicians and power brokers maintain them long after they should have ended.
But in this holiday season, as Christians mark the birth of the Prince of Peace, religious leaders and honest historians maintain the memory of the Christmas Truce of 1914, and the faith that there might yet be a Christmas Truce of 2022.