Joyeux Noel: In The Midst of War

By Timothy L. Fort PhD, JD, Eveleigh Professor of Business Ethics and Professor of Business Law & Ethics, Kelley School of Business and Indiana University​

In 1914, German soldiers faced Allied troops in the early stages of brutal trench warfare. Yet on Christmas Eve, they emerge from their trenches. They sing, trade liquor and cigarettes, play soccer and celebrate a Christmas Eve Mass. They bury their dead. They then find that they can no longer fight. Joyeux Noel attempts to capture this event.

It’s a piece of history that bubbles up from time to time: The Christmas Eve Truce of World War I.  In December of 1914, German soldiers faced Allied troops in the early stages of the brutal trench warfare that characterized much of that global conflict.  According to a BBC documentary, there were many “live and let live” truces leading up to Christmas as soldiers realized that the war was not going to end quickly and that the opposing side was dealing with the same conditions as they were.  So, here and there, truces resulted with soldiers bantering and even bartering for cigarettes and other small goods.  Pope Benedict had called for a larger truce, which while ignored by the countries, helped to prompt an outpouring of cards and gifts and even, on the German side, small trees to the soldiers.  On Christmas Eve, those trees went up on the German side and troops on both sides began singing – according to several accounts, initiated by a German opera star –  and other games, trading, and celebrations took place.

Joyeux Noel is a work of historical fiction that attempts to recount this story.  It begins with recitations of school children, indoctrinated to believe that the “other side” is evil.  Then it traces a story of the officers in the midst of the trenches, the German opera star and his wife, a pair of Scottish brothers, one of whom dies and the other who is the only soldier who cannot let go of his anger amidst the truce, and a priest.  The sides do sing together.  They emerge from their trenches and trade liquor, cigarettes and other items.  They play soccer.  They celebrate a Christmas Eve religious service.  They bury their dead, whose bodies have been left in “no-man’s land” between the trenches.  After humanizing each other, they find that they can no longer fight, which enrages their superiors as it did in real life. 

To be fair, there is reason for the generals and political leaders to be angry.  War does, after all, have an objective and playing soccer with the enemy does nothing to advance it.  At the same time, the depiction of the truce also demonstrates the ways in which common, ordinary things can provide the basis of commonality and harmony: Music. Business (trade). Sports.  Religion.  These cultural artifacts provide the foundations for peace.  While recognizing the countervailing arguments for soldiers doing their duty, I’ve found this film to be a moving, educational artifact in its own right to demonstrate that these common cultural artifacts – music, business, sports, and religion – also have power to harmonize differences and provide a foundation for peace.

Joyeux Noel was released in 2005.  More recently, the story of The Christmas Eve truce became an off-Broadway musical, All is Calm, which tells the story of the truce in the words and letters of soldiers along with songs of the era.  Joyeux Noel was directed by Christian Carion and is available in the usual streaming platforms such as Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime Video, and ITunes.

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