"Silent Night"
By Liu Shing

I am an old soldier.

I fought in both world wars, and in my lifetime, seen more than my share of battle-borne blood, carnage and death. There are some things that I have seen, that I have done, that I wish I could forget. But there are some things that I want never to drift away from the smoke-sifted edges of my memories.

*

Christmas Eve, 1914
The Western Front

The snow began to fall upon the Western Front on Christmas Eve. Somehow, I thought the weather would have only exacerbated the cold, wet, shivering conditions in the trenches, but oddly enough, the snowflakes fluttering from the sky lent the shell torn land a stilled serenity. The lily petals fell upon the waves of fallen men sprawled across the expanse of No Man's Land, as if God's hands were burying the multitude of dead that our own would never be able to.

As if by some unspoken truce, at sunset, the Germans had ceased their shelling for the first time since the Great War had begun near six months ago, and so had we. There was a strange quiet hanging between the two sides. I was so used to the incessant shelling that when the quiet came, it seemed...peaceful.

As shadows began to creep, we could dimly see soft spangles of candle light spring up against the dark fabric of the slipping nightfall. The winter's wind across the German trenches brought the soft strains of music-the gentle notes of "Silent Night." I could hear the soldiers singing together, hundreds, even thousands of voices in harmonious discord. The melody was off-key, out of time and I didn't understand German very well, but therein lay something incredibly profound.

Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.
Holder Knab' im lockigten Haar,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!

Slowly, the soldiers around me began to sing too, English and French voices joining the chorus. From beyond the fog-dimmed battlefield, I could still see the bravely flickering candlelight, like beacons of peace set against the darkness of war.

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

A lone violin joined in. A hush fell again across the trenches as the sea of voices gave way to the violin's piercing tears. The instrument wept thin strands of music, weaving and braiding them with rich, deep melodies. I couldn't tell where the violinist was, on our side or theirs, but the hope-filled notes of "Silent Night" surrounded us all, German, French, or British. The sounds were so distant, yet so near, all at the same time. I could see him in my mind's eye, thin frame, back to the stars, snow kissed fingertips drawing out each tremulous note as he swayed to and fro in a dreamy state. Perhaps a year ago, he had played this song before a crackling fire, standing beside the Christmas tree while his wife and little children listened in rapt attention.

The carol was one of innocence and comfort-and yes, it did cheer us all-but at the same time, in this stark quiet, I heard so much melancholy. A man beside me began to weep with the violin's lilting sobs, and I could not help but weep as well. I couldn't remember the last time I had felt tears down these grime-streaked cheeks, but the universality of the song just touched something off in me. It was as if it didn't matter which country we were from, who we were fighting for, even who we were; we, soldiers on both sides of No-Man's Land, all wanted to be home with our families, our mothers, our fathers, our brothers our sisters, our wives, our children, our friends...

But instead, we were here, in this Godforsaken hellhole. We fought for different men, different beliefs, hell, the song we sang was in different tongues. Right now, the different languages didn't matter, though. The melody meant the same to us all. It held for each man, the same kind of longing for home and for loved ones far away.

The violin lulled us all to sleep. That night, for the first time in what had seemed like an eternity, I slept without fear for shells or the rattling of the machine guns.

It truly was a Silent Night.

*

There are times when I cannot help but wonder if what happened happened only in my dreams. In the next four years, I saw enough brutality to drench the innocence of that Christmas Eve in crimson swaths of blood, enough weariness in men's eyes to dim even the brightest of those peace-time candles, and enough death screams to drown out the simple beauty of a Silent Night. But I will cling to my fervent hope that those two days truly existed, and there is still a glimmer of goodness in the human psyche.

The unspoken truce lasted past Christmas day. On the morning of December 26, 1914, the fighting began anew, breaking the peace as if the Christmas truce had never happened.

Author's Note: The event I based this fictionalized account upon is known in history as "the Christmas Truce." It occurred on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of 1914, the first year of World War One. On the Western Front, a line of trenches between France and Germany, British, French and German troops ceased their fighting for the two days out of respect towards one another. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called it, "one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of the war."