In response to my current focus on book reviewing, Michael Snow kindly sent me a copy of his book, Oh Holy Night: The Peace of 1914. It is a popular-level and short book (one could read it from cover to cover in an hour and a half), with pen and ink illustrations. It tells the story of the temporary cessation of hostilities on the Western Front during the First World War on Christmas Day in 1914. The history of this incredible event is primarily recounted in the many moving letters home from the trenches that Snow has selected. He discusses the fierce official resistance that existed to such a truce in some quarters. The event is viewed in the larger context of the abortive attempts to prevent Europe from sliding into the war and the joy and relief of the 1918 armistice coupled with its bitter legacy.
The book is essentially one of correspondences, of rulers’ futile efforts to preserve a crumbling peace through telegrams and missals, of men writing the incredible news of a marvellous event to family back home. It is a story of failed attempts to establish communication and peace but also of the way in which the darkest of situations was pierced by a joyful and wondrous event that all who were present felt drawn to bear witness to in their letters to friends and family (one is struck by the many letters that repeatedly assure the reader that the events being described truly took place).
Snow’s book, however, is one that speaks of greater correspondences. Within the book, Snow seeks to bring the meaning of the first Christmas, the 1914 Christmas, and every other Christmas into the closest of relations. Interspersed with the letters are the full words of the Christmas hymns and carols which are mentioned. That one Christmas in 1914 becomes a window through which we are invited to see the meaning of every Christmas, as in a world where violence reigns and all human attempts at truce-making fail, God declares a freely given peace to frightened humanity, a peace that appears as a wonder beyond anything we could have expected or anticipated. The end of all wars was not achieved through the carnage of the Great War, but through God’s gift of a Son. Through his Son God ends hostilities between heaven and earth, sending the message of his goodwill towards us, opening up channels of communication that we had closed off.
Snow wants us to see ourselves in the shoes of the nervous British soldiers in the trenches, who hearing the invitation to lay down their arms and leave them are faced with a call to a faith that overcomes the fear of death and the assumption of its unchallenged reign, the courageous faith that enables us to forgo the path of violence. In the shared celebration of God’s peace-making gift of his Son, the soldiers discover each other as brothers and peace breaks out between them. To our cynical, world-weary, or disillusioned minds, the wonder and surprise of Christmas can evoke the same disbelief, incredulity, and suspicion that the huddled Tommies in the trenches initially felt. To all in such a position, Snow’s message is ‘It’s all true: come up and see!’
In a world scarred by perpetual warfare, an unofficial celebration of the Peace of God such as that which occurred in 1914 heralds another order, an order that, far from being characterized by sickly and escapist sentimentality, can be seen most sharply contoured against the backdrop of the merciless slaughter of innocents, the terrible violence of kings fearing the twilight of their empires, and the failing of men’s hearts in fear. It is an order that must be entered through faith, the laying down of our arms, and the dropping of our constant guard, in response to joyful tidings that confound all of our expectations.
A simple, short, and accessible work, Snow’s book helps to remind us of this very heart of the Christmas message.
I have a wishlist of possible books for review here. Although it may take me a little while to do so, I will review any book from it that someone buys for me.