In December of 1914, German soldiers found themselves buried in muddy trenches hardly a hundred yards from their British counterparts. World War I was barely four months old and something very unwarlike took place along the Western Front. On Christmas Eve, an unplanned and unsanctioned period of peace swept across that war zone.
History tells us it started when German soldiers started singing carols on that Christmas Eve. “Stille Nacht, Heil’ge Nacht” they sang in their native tongue to a melody all too familiar to other soldiers hunkered down in other trenches. They were so close they could smell what the enemy was cooking for supper. In some cases, the British soldiers sang along in English. When one song finished, another from the other side would begin. “O Come All Ye Faithful” would be followed by “O Tanenbaum” and then “Away in a Manger.” In the middle of a war zone, men clutching rifles and letters from home sang about a little baby’s birth who was the very symbol of love and peace.
It’s against this historical backdrop that the combined choirs of Charleston Southern University’s choral department will present this year’s Christmas concert. The piece is titled “An Outbreak of Peace: A Christmas Oratorio.” The composer, Andrew Fowler, a resident of Myrtle Beach, will attend the performance. Dr. Jennifer Luiken, chair of the Horton School of Music, chose this for the concert “because it’s a real-life example of hope and humanity.” It’s also a chance to enlighten students to something historical they probably never heard before. “It really hits home,” says Sarah Altman, a senior from Aynor, S.C. “How could a night of peace break out in the middle of a war? To sing about it is a neat and cool experience.”
The chorus has been rehearsing since early October. Even during the 70 degree days of early fall, ‘O Holy Night’ and ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ could be heard from the bowels of the Chapel. For history major, Diana Snellgrove, a sophomore from Huntsville, Alabama, “This gives us a chance to educate and still bring the message of Jesus Christ through this performance.”
The first half of the choral production tells the story of that European Christmas Eve and the day that followed when both sides laid down their guns and walked to each other with hands outstretched. During Christmas Day, British and German soldiers exchanged cigarettes, food, buttons and hats. The second half deals with the letters discovered years later written of that day. Pvt. Albert Moren, 2nd Queens Regiment, described the surroundings as “a beautiful, moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere.”
The history department will place exhibits in the lobby that further speak to this brief moment of peace. A handful of student musicians will join a few professionals to comprise the orchestra. Ricard Bordas, assistant professor of voice and interim director of choral activities, will conduct the performance. “It’s very powerful, very moving,” says Bordas. “These men broke the rules of war and could have faced execution.”
Luiken says she’s always heard the old adage that “there are no atheists in foxholes.” The moment in history clearly speaks to that. The production concludes with the familiar song of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Luiken specifically believes one of the final verses of this traditional tune speaks to that time and even to us today:
Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men
The performance is December 2, 7:30 p.m., at Lightsey Chapel. Admission is $10. CSU students, faculty and staff are admitted free. Be sure to see this moving rendition that commemorates a short peace in a terrible war