Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to our podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. This is Steve Shallenberger, your Becoming Your Best host, and we are thrilled to have you with us here today, especially during this grand time of the year. Christmas is really a special holiday and a special time of the year. It is, of course, a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus from Bethlehem. And what an extraordinary night and gift unlike any other, a gift that has filled the earth with greater love, forgiveness, and eternal hope. It is a time that you and I can give gifts of love and consideration to others. And one of the greatest gifts that you can give is a changed life that emulates the life of Christ throughout the entire year.
History has many wonderful stories that have really helped us understand better this time of Christmas and the lasting impact that it has – stories of hope and love. And during the year that has been one that the world will never forget, we all need a dose of hope and encouragement, light, and realization that all as well. In today’s podcast, I will share two such stories to illustrate this. The first took place in 1938 and the other in 1914. Others are taking place every single day, stories similar to these, now, in our time and in our lives. And isn’t it nice to recognize and be grateful for those acts of love and consideration and in turn to do small quiet kind acts for others? This is what makes the world a better place.
Okay, well let’s go ahead and talk about this first story. It took place as the holiday season of 1938 came to Chicago. Bob May wasn’t feeling much comfort or joy. A 34-year-old ad writer for Montgomery Ward – the department store – May was exhausted and nearly broke. His wife Evelyn was bedridden on the losing end of a two-year battle with cancer. This left Bob to look after their four-year-old daughter Barbara. One night, Barbara asked her father “Why isn’t my mommy like everyone else’s mommy?” And as he struggled to answer his daughter’s question, Bob remembered the pain of his own childhood – as a small sickly boy, he was constantly picked on and called names. But he wanted to give his daughter hope and show her that being different was nothing to be ashamed of. More than that, he wanted her to know that he loved her and would always take care of her. So, he began to spin a tale about a reindeer with a bright red nose who found a special place on Santa’s team. Barbara loved the story so much that she made her father tell it every night before bedtime, and as he did, it grew more elaborate. And because he couldn’t afford to buy his daughter a gift for Christmas, Bob decided to turn the story into a homemade picture book. In early December, Bob’s wife died. Though he was heartbroken, he kept working on the book for his daughter, and a few days before Christmas, he reluctantly attended a company party at Montgomery Ward. His co-workers encouraged him to share the story he had written, and after he read it, there was a standing ovation. Everyone wanted copies of their own. Montgomery Ward bought the rights to the book from their debt-ridden employee. And over the next six years at Christmas, they gave away 6 million copies of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to shoppers. Every major publishing house in the country was making offers to obtain the book and in an incredible display of goodwill, the head of the department store returned all rights to Bob May.
Four years later, Rudolph had made him into a millionaire, and now remarried with a growing family, May felt blessed by his good fortune, but there was more to come. His brother in law, a successful songwriter named Johnny Marks, set the uplifting story to music. The song was pitched to artists from Bing Crosby on down – they all passed. And finally, Marks approached Gene Autry, the cowboy star that had scored a holiday hit with ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’, a few years before. And like the others, Autry wasn’t impressed with the song about the misfit reindeer. Marks begged him to give it a second listen. Autry played it for his wife, Ina. She was so touched by the line that ‘they wouldn’t let poor Rudolph play in any reindeer games’, that she insisted that her husband record the tune. Well, within a few years, it had become the second best selling Christmas song ever, right behind White Christmas. And since then, Rudolph has come to life on TV specials, cartoons, movies, toys, games, coloring books, greeting cards, and even a Ringling Brothers circus act. The Little Red-Nosed Reindeer dreamed up by Bob May, and immortalized in song by Johnny Marks has come to symbolize Christmas as much as Santa Claus, evergreen trees, and presents. As the last line of the song says “He’ll go down in history”, this is a great inspiration. There are tough times and even for tough times we keep trying to do good, build upon our own talents, lift others, serve others. This is the light that comes from shining in Christmas.
Here’s the second story – some of you may have heard this, equally as powerful and touching – is the World War One Christmas Truce. And look back now when the holiday spirit really prompted an impromptu ceasefire along World War One’s Western Front. Charlie Brewer relates that he never expected to be spending Christmas Eve nearly knee-deep in the mud of Northern France. Stationed on the front lines, the 19-year-old British Lieutenant with the Bedfordshire regiment of the 2nd Battalion shivered in a trench with his fellow soldiers. And after Great Britain entered World War One in August 1914, many of them had expected that they would make a quick work of the enemy and be home in time for Christmas. And nearly five months and 1 million lives later, however, the Great War had bogged down in intractable trench warfare with no end in sight. And I might add that my grandpa John Robert Quarles was in this war and in those trenches. Although disappointed to be far from home on Christmas Eve, Brewer at least took solace in the fact that the perpetual rain which made moving through the trenches as much of a slog as the war itself, had finally abated on the moonlight night.
All was jarringly quiet on the Western Front when a British sentry suddenly spied a glistening light on the German parapet, less than 100 yards away. Warned that it might be a trap, Brewer slowly raised his head over the soaked sandbags, protecting his position and through the maze of the barbed wire and saw a sparkling Christmas tree. And as the Lieutenant gazed down the line of the German trenches, a whole string of small conifers glimmered like beads on a necklace. Brewer then noticed the rising of a faint sound that he had never heard on the battlefield, a Christmas Carol. The German words to “Stille Nacht” were not familiar but the tune Silent Night certainly was. And when the German soldiers finished singing, their foes broke out in cheers. Used to returning fire, the British now replied in song, with the English version of this beautiful carol, Silent Night.
When dawn broke on Christmas morning, something even more remarkable happened. In sporadic pockets along this 500 mile Western Front, unarmed German and Allied soldiers tentatively emerged from the trenches and cautiously crossed no-man’s-land – the killing fields between the trenches littered with frozen corpses, eviscerated trees, and deep craters – to wish each other a Merry Christmas. Political leaders had ignored the call of Pope Benedict the 15th to seize fighting around Christmas, but soldiers in the trenches decided to stage their own unofficial, spontaneous armistices anyway. Far from an organized top-down ceasefire, the Christmas truce instead was a series of the small armistices that bubbled up from the men in the foxholes deciding to fraternize with the enemy. “We shook hands, wished each other a Merry Christmas, and were soon conversing as if we had known each other for years.” British corporal John Ferguson wrote of the encounter between his Seaforth Highlanders and the German forces, “Here we were laughing, and chatting to men whom only a few hours before, we were trying to kill.” “Almost always, it was the Germans who at least indirectly invited the truce,” writes Stanley Weintraub in his book, “Silent Night – The Story of the World War One Truce of Christmas.” That was partly because the Germans were winning the war at that point, and many of the troops had worked in Great Britain before the war and could speak English.
The soldiers exchanged makeshift gifts such as cigarettes and chocolates and sausages and liquor and plum puddings and likely swap stories about the miseries of war. German soldiers in Houplines, even rolled barrels of beer that they had seized from a nearby brewery across no man’s land to the British trenches where according to the British soldier, Frank Richards, they raised toasts to one another’s health and united in agreement that French beer was rotten stuff. Well, in some cases, this strip of death between the trenches even came alive with a pick-up soccer game. It was an extraordinary time and as they thought about this, and their hearts were warm with really the message of Christ, they had an experience they would never forget.
As the sun set on Christmas, the fighters retreated to their respective trenches. A few ceasefires actually held until New Year’s Day. In most locations, however, the war resumed on December 26th, at 8:30. In Houpline, Captain Charles Stockwell of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers fired three shots into the air and raised the flag that read Merry Christmas. His German counterparts raised the flag that read Thank You. The two men then mounted the parapets, saluted each other, and returned to their sodden trenches. Stockwell wrote that his counterpart then “fired two shots into the air, and unfortunately, the war was on again”. The guns of World War One did not fall silent again until the signing of the armistice on November 11th, 1918, almost four years later. The Christmas truce, however, provided an unforgettable memory for many such as the British soldier who confessed in a letter the following day, “I wouldn’t have missed the experience of yesterday for the most gorgeous Christmas dinner in England.”
This is a special time of year. A time where people may be uncertain about the future because of the ravages of COVID-19 that’s taken place, that’s affected everyone in the world. They may be hurting and discouraged – people everywhere, people that you wouldn’t think would feel that way. There is a reason to hope because everything will come out all right. This is the hope of the light of Christmas, and that everything will be okay again. And it’s also an example of the life of Christ, and that He will come again. Everything will work out. You can serve, inspire others, and provide a gentle hand up during this Christmas season with your own family, friends, and those in need. Reach out and lift. Living the Golden Rule, listening to another, and holding on to the hope of a grand future, as we never give up.
To end this podcast today, I’d like to have us reflect on what would’ve maybe been happening that evening and that day in World War One so long ago, and undoubtedly has been repeated many times since, as I share with you the words of the song, Silent Night. And you can sing along if you want.
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
‘Round yon virgin Mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Merry Christmas, to each one of you!