Today, just five days before Christmas, U.S. President Barack Obama held a ceremony to conclude the Iraq War. But battles sometimes come to a standstill even without official sanction, as John McCutcheon sang about on his 1984 album Winter Solstice.
Christmas 1914: Groups of German and British soldiers living in cold, muddy trenches in France struck up an unofficial armistice. Lonely and far away from home, these young men met spontaneously in the “No Man’s Land” between the trenches to sing carols, play football, and toast the holiday together.
American folk musician John McCutcheon captured this event on his album Winter Solstice, released on Rounder Records in 1984. Listening to McCutcheon’s song “Christmas in the Trenches,” the beautiful simplicity of the 1914 truce still hits home a century later.
‘There’s someone coming towards us!’ the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one lone figure coming from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright
As he bravely strode unarmed into the night.
McCutcheon says that he first heard the armistice story from an unassuming janitor backstage at a concert decades ago. “Christmas in the Trenches” has become a beloved holiday classic, and it’s one of McCutcheon’s most well-known songs.
The entire album deserves being listened to each holiday season, and it’s no wonder after three decades that it still appears on “must listen” Christmas music lists.
McCutcheon’s delicate hammer dulcimer both kindles the warmth of being inside on a late December afternoon as well as conjures the crisp chill of the days leading up to the solstice. He was joined on the recording by members of the Washington Bach Consort and of Paul Reisler’s folk ensemble Trapezoid.
As our own war concludes and we move into the holiday season, the lessons of the 1914 Christmas armistice are well worth remembering: peace can be spontaneous and the truest kind is often unofficial.
As McCutcheon sang on Winter Solstice: “The walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war, had been crumbled and were gone for evermore.”
Full Winter Solstice track list
1. Christmas Day Ida Moarnin/Un Flambeau Jeanette Isabella
2. Erev Shel Shoshanim
3. Willie’s Waltz
4. Christmas In The Trenches
5. Star In The East
6. Old Christmas Morning/Breaking Up Christmas
7. Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head
8. For Unto Us A Child Is Born
9. Huron Carol
10. Detroit, December
11. Down In Yon Forest/New Year’s Eve