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The Bells of Bethlehem Ring Christmas Peace: The Suspension of War Once a Year on the Eve of Silent Night

Every year at Christmas, the bells of Bethlehem ring, reminding the world of the birth of the “prince of peace.” Millions of greeting cards are emblazoned with the message “peace on earth,” perhaps as a once-a-year reminder that peace continues to be elusive in our communities and in the world. The reconciliation between war and peace may be the most difficult for mankind to achieve. Mark Twain wrote that man, in the “intervals between campaigns…washes the blood off his hands and works for the ‘universal brotherhood of man’ — with his mouth.” [1]

In Time of the Breaking of Nations

Thomas Hardy’s 1915 poem came as World War I entered its second, bloody year. It is both an affirmation that humankind will continue, though dynasties may fall, as well as an observation that war will always be a part of that existence. In was during this war that soldiers left their trenches during the 1914 “Christmas Truce” and sang hymns like “Silent Night.” John McCutcheon captured the mood in a CD titled Christmas in the Trenches, a worthwhile journey into that night on “no man’s land.”

Similarly, during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, German and American soldiers sought shelter in a home occupied by a mother and her young daughter. Convincing the soldiers to leave their weapons outside, and reminding them that this was the holiest of all nights, she fixed them a meal. Together they sang “Silent Night,” and, in the morning, they left the house to return to their own battle lines.

Despite the best efforts of peacemakers, the wars of the twenty-first century appear to replicate those of all prior centuries. India and Pakistan, both nations with nuclear arsenals, are poised again to go to war in the aftermath of the Mumbai attack. In Israel, Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned of a “heavy price” in the wake of intensified attacks on Israeli citizens and soldiers. The bells of Bethlehem are not heard, however, in Jerusalem, in Islamabad, in Beirut, or in Washington, DC.

Peace on Earth is a Worthy Goal

The 1963 John Wayne movie Donovan’s Reef contains one of the best Christmas scenes of any movie ever made. On Christmas Eve, on an island in French Polynesia, the island’s governor reads aloud the story of Christ’s birth in a small Catholic Church filled with islanders, sailors from Australia, and American veterans that chose to remain there after the war.

As the governor comes to the visitation of the three kings, he introduces them as the King of Polynesia, the Emperor of China, and the King of the United States of America while the choir sings “Silent Night.” The symbolism is not lost. A common endeavor, perhaps the achievement of real world peace that is focused on a power greater than all of mankind, is a worthy goal.

It has been said that it takes a war to appreciate peace. Peace after war “binds the nation’s wounds,” as Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address. Yet how much better would the world be if the prayers of Christmas and the gold etched messages on greeting cards were reality? What might happen if the bells of Bethlehem were heard by all, everywhere?