The story is often told of the first Christmas during World War I when troops in the trenches sang Christmas carols back and forth, and even shared their Christmas rations. The stories have taken on a mythic quality through the years. They serve as an example of how we may sometimes rise above our circumstances and let our humanity triumph over situations of divisiveness.
Joyeux Noel tells the story of one of those Christmas celebrations that transcended the war that surrounded it. An international production, it has been nominated for awards in many countries and well deserves the attention. It manages to inspire without being saccharine or overwrought. It portrays a situation that may seem surreal in ways that seem very real.
The film opens with a chilling reminder of the venom that is intrinsic to war. It is hardly possible to be at war without hating and demonizing the enemy. So the film shows us three school children -- one French, one British, one German -- reciting patriotic poems that not only extol their countries virtue, but also speak of how evil the enemy is. This kind of indoctrination is necessary to fighting a war.
It is especially important that soldiers internalize such understandings if they are to kill the enemy. Even when one believes their cause is just, it makes it easier to kill another when they are perceived as less than human.
This mindset is the backdrop for Joyeux Noel. The events of that Christmas in 1914 are not just nice stories; they represent men having to overcome deep feelings about those in the other trenches.
This film focuses on three groups of soldiers, French, German, and Scottish. The three officers are all career soldiers and know the danger of such fraternization; it will destroy the will to kill the enemy because they will be seen as like us.
In the film, one of the German soldiers (an operatic tenor) has been called to the Crown Prince's headquarters to sing for that Christmas Eve celebration. He knows he must return to his unit and sing for them. When he arrives and sings Stille Nacht, the Scottish chaplain begins to accompany him on the bagpipes. The tenor then carries a Christmas tree into No Man's Land between the trenches while singing Adeste Fideles. Soon all the soldiers from the three trenches are at the top of the walls watching. The officers meet and decide that the war won't be decided tonight, and allow the men to gather, share chocolate and champagne and whiskey. Then they gather as one group as the chaplain says Mass in Latin, a language that belonged to none of them, but to all of them.
The next day (Christmas) the officers decide it would be appropriate to bury the dead, and the men take advantage of the time and their new acquaintances to play some soccer or cards as well.
How can they go back to fighting one another?
The officers are all reprimanded, but none more severely than the chaplain who is sent back to his parish in
I read one review that said that the events we see are truly unbelievable, except that they are true. That is a fair representation. How could soldiers who have faced one another in those awful conditions and killed the enemy and seen the enemy kill their comrades overcome the enmity they felt just because it was Christmas? And yet they did.
Part of what makes the film so compelling are the personal stories that are included -- the story of the tenor and his lover, the story of the French lieutenant whose wife is in German territory and should have delivered their child by now, the Scottish soldier whose brother's body lies in No Man's Land covered in snow, the chaplain who seeks to minister in whatever way he can.
The film is also very interesting visually. A scene early on in the Scottish church as the news of war comes -- the candles have just been lit, but as the door is opened the wind extinguishes them all. Or as the Scottish soldier buries his brother, we see him putting a pair of gloves their mother had sent into the grave.
We are reminded by watching this film that war is destructive -- not only to the land and those who are killed and maimed, but to all those who take part. To fail to see the enemy as a child of God -- as our brother or sister -- is not only to dehumanize them, but causes us to lose our own humanity.
But on that Christmas in 1914, German, French and Scottish soldiers found their humanity in the face of the enemy as they shared together a day that was special to them all -- a day when they remembered the one called the Prince of Peace. The German lieutenant said, "I'm a Jew. Christmas means nothing to me. But I will remember last night forever."
On that Christmas, peace did come for a brief and shining moment -- not only in No Man's Land, but in the hearts of those in opposing trenches.