What if we taught children history in the context of hope and compassion?
On Christmas Day 1914, more than 100,000 German and British soldiers found themselves in a spontaneous truce.
World War I was tightening its grip on Europe, and infantry lines were growing more entrenched by the day. German and British war offices were intensifying their efforts and reinforcing the fronts with barbed wire and young soldiers, vying for control of strategic points that would determine the course of the war for the next four years. Both sides were fighting, decorating that holiday season in razor wire and artillery flashes.
In one incident, men from both sides climbed out of their trenches onto No-Man’s-Land, not to fight, but to play a spontaneous game of football. No guns, that day, no broken bones, no hearts burst by bullets, no cries of “Medic!”
One can imagine mingled German and British voices, “I’m open!” carrying across the scorched landscape, the faces of young men—bitter enemies—uplifted together in a moment of joy.
Private Ronald MacKinnon wrote home that the players and onlookers from both armies exchanged cigarettes, showed off photographs of their families, and wished one another happiness in the coming year. MacKinnon was killed weeks later in the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
For some players, the effect of the game was so strong that, when the war “resumed” the next day, they refused to fire on the men they had spent Christmas with, and had to be removed to another area before they would fight again.
Sometimes I feel that human history is one long, tattered, bloody parade. At these times, when I think of my role as a teacher, I worry about asking young people to study certain spectacles of atrocity.
But when I think again of this image, I realize that we may choose what is significant. If we tell ourselves that the surges of war and national crises are most important, they will be, and our children will believe that they are small people in a seething world of wild forces, out of their control and unaffected by human compassion.
But if we teach them about moments like this, if we write history as a context for moments of beauty and compassion and connection to emerge, we might find a little more hope.
Instead of blindly pursuing an objective “history” that does not exist, we could normalize the positive. We could be students of history and students of peace.
For more information on this topic, please see the well-written and researched Wikipedia article on the Christmas Truce.
Laura Maceis a high school history teacher in with a driving passion to connect the universal, the “big picture,” to the individual body and soul. Her chief means for doing so is through writing. She worships rivers and other forms of gravity acting upon water.
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Ed: Brianna Bemel