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The year was 1914; I was nineteen years old, a young boy. I was fighting on the Western Front in the midst of World War 1. It was back in the day of crude war craft, when trenches were used, those dark vile pits of death and decay. A comrade could be shot and dead right next to you and you wouldn’t know until the fighting cleared up.
Along with me, there was another young man in our trench. He was a Frenchman and his name was Louis, Louis DeVal. He was twenty-one, older than me, but still young enough to be considered a boy by the older soldiers. To me, he was a big brother, a guardian, who would look out for me.
“Daniel,” he would tell me. “If only you could see my home, my family. My mére, she always is smelling of fresh bread and is always with a smile on her face. My father is a good man. He is a…how do you say it in English? He works with animals, helps them when they are sick?”
“A veterinarian?” I answered, smiling.
“Yes. With farm animals. And my little brother, Pierre.” He sighed, gazing into the distance with longing on his face. “He must be much taller now. And there is Isabelle.”
In my mind, she was the sweetest part of his story. I had no family; they had all been lost to cholera. When Louis had talked about his family, I would imagine myself in his house, with his mother, always smelling of dough, with his father, a kind animal doctor, with his little brother, the energetic rascal, and of course with his fiancée, the beautiful Isabelle. The way he talked about her, you knew he was in love. He called her his angel, his heaven on Earth. He carried a little photograph of her in his pocket, near to his heart.
As we sat in the trenches that Christmas Eve, in the freezing weather, I was thinking of his family, trying to remember mine. The shots rang out in my ears as I fired my own gun a couple of times. But in my head I kept thinking about the holiday season and the warmth and friendship one was supposed to cherish in those times and how it never had applied to me. Louis noted my expression and turned to me.
“It’s Christmas, my British friend!” he said brightly, pushing the wheat colored hair out of his eyes. His face was full of such excitement. “Celebrate!”
A scream rang out from a trench relatively close to ours, but in all the smoke, I couldn’t tell who had been shot.
“It’s hard to celebrate with all this war around us,” I stated grimly.
“Come now, don’t be such a…what is that noise?” He turned his head upwards, craning his neck. I felt puzzled for a second, but then sure enough, a faint song could be heard over the explosions and shooting.
“Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schläft; einsam wacht.”
The tune was familiar in my ears, like a distant call from a forgotten memory. An old Christmas carol that brought back a wave of nostalgia from my grim holidays in a London orphanage.
Then I heard a voice, in the same tune, carry on the song.
“Dans le ciel tout repose en paix…” It was Louis, continuing the song in his native French. He stood straight up in our trench, taking off his cap solemnly.
“Louis!” I hissed. “What are you doing?”
He just looked at me, a strange mixture of peace and pity in his face. Soon enough, almost all the men in my trench had stood up, singing ‘Silent Night’ in mixed English and French. I don’t know what had overcome me, but I was among them.
“Silent Night, Holy Night…” my frail voice mixed in with the hundreds of others as the shots ceased to near nothing. The only sound on this lonely Christmas Eve was the voices of soldiers, all soldiers, the English, the French, and the German, all of them. For that moment, I felt perfect peace and tranquility.
Within moments, small signs had been erected in front of the German trenches. In broken English they said: Mery Krismas, Hapi Holidaes, Pees on Erth…
And I understood what should be done.
I took a deep breath, and then holding my hands up, I stepped out of the trench and into the No-Man’s land. The men in my company looked at me as if I was insane, but I kept walking forward slowly. I half expected a bullet to be launched towards me or some other misfortune to fall upon me, yet nothing came. In fact, I turned around to see Louis next to me, his hands up in a peace offering as well. He smiled at me and said in his thick French accent: “It is a Christmas miracle.”
As we got closer to the enemy side, we realized that we were not alone. Some other Allie soldiers had joined us and were walking together towards the other end. And there at that end, German soldiers had gotten up as well and were making their way towards us. Like us, they had anxious and apprehensive looks on their dirty faces. Like us, they wore ratted coats and stained uniforms. Like us, their hair was matted and dirty and their skin muddy and cold. They were, apart from our backgrounds and language, just like us.
For a second, we stood in solemn silence, taking in the precious moment. And then, we greeted each other like long lost friends. There were cheers of excitement and sounds of gratitude as food and drink were exchanged. The opposing sides came together and visited each other’s trenches.
Pretty soon, Louis and I sat in a German trench with a boy about my age, laughing at the football game that was being carried out by the older men.
The German boy’s name was Markel and he was going to be nineteen that June. He told us about his family and how he wanted to be a carpenter, just like his father. He had a round face with dimples and a boyish look about him. He was charming and exuberant, much like charismatic Louis. I enjoyed listening to them talk about their families and their friends back home in France and Germany. I appreciated their effort to include me in their conversations about the things I never knew. Deep in my soul, I wished that this time of peace could go on forever and that we’d never have to fight again.
The Christmas Truce lasted for weeks after that fateful night. Eventually, though, higher officials had their say, and we were called away from the Western Front. The last time I saw Markel, was when we were marching out. I happened to glance behind my shoulder and see his sad face in the pouring rain. I tried to wave, but if I had been seen, the consequences would not have been good. I just kept marching forward, trying not to think off all the horrible things ahead.
Four long years later, in 1918, the war had ended. On the outside, the effects were good, there was no fighting. But the casualties for the people who had been fighting had war outweighed the benefits. With a heavy heart in my chest and a folded French flag in my hand, I knocked on the door of a house that I had never seen before, but was familiar to me in so many ways.
“Oui?” said the girl who answered the door. I was a complete stranger to her, but to me, she was recognizable figure. She had a beautiful face, which was marred with lines of sadness and worry.
The words I was about to say got stuck in my throat. Behind the girl, a short, plump woman with a sweet smile came up. She eyed me hesitantly, from my uniform to the flag in my arms. Her face fell, as I looked away and handed her the flag.
“I’m sorry, your son, Louis…he was brave to the very end,” I said, not quite sure if they understood me. The woman’s eyes filled with tears and she turned and spoke to me in her thick accent.
“You must be Daniel, then? Louis wrote about you all the time.” Then she sobbed and covered her face in her apron, hurrying off to cry alone.
I was left with Isabelle, who looked surprisingly calm. We both opened our mouths to speak at the same time. I blushed and she looked away.
“You first,” I told her. She took a deep breath and wiped a tear that had formed on the edge of her big blue eyes.
“I read in Louis’s letters about you. He spoke of you like a brother. He said you made him happy in dark times.” She took my rough, calloused hands in her smooth, white ones. “I want to thank you for that. I know he died a hero, and I know you lived for a reason.” She seemed to be finished, so I started.
“He talked about you all the time.” She looked up, her eyes brimming with tears. I felt one at the corner of my eye, but I pushed it away. “He loved you so much, I could tell, just by how he talked about you. He said you were the kindest, smartest, most beautiful girl in the world…”
She smiled here and whispered something softly, that sounded like: “Louis…”
I took a deep breath and continued.
“When he was shot…when he lay dying…he made me promise two things.” I held up my fingers appropriately. “One was for it to be me who told his family. And the second…the second was for me to watch over and protect you…”
Before I could even finish my sentence, Isabelle was in my arms, weeping with the loss of her beloved Louis. I cried as well, for the loss of the closest thing I had to family. And as the rain sprinkled softly down, it was as if the world was crying too, for the loss of a kindhearted, charismatic, young man.
It’s been almost a hundred years, and I still remember that Christmas Day like it was yesterday. Times have changed, people have grown. I married and had three beautiful children, their names; Louis, Markel, and Noel. Isabelle and I were blessed to live long and joyous lives with them. In the end, I died a happy man, with a loving wife and family. Throughout my whole life, I never again took Christmas for granted. And neither should anyone else. It must live in your hearts, no matter what season it is, no matter what year, and no matter what situation it is. It is only then, when you remember peace and goodwill above all, can you be truly content.