The Annals of Christmas Diplomacy

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How the winter holiday has guided international events, for better and for worse

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World War I soldiers stop fighting to play football on Christmas Day in Salonika, 1915 / Wikimedia

Before Kim Jong-il's death, the last big story out of North Korea had to do with Christmas lights. "North Korea has warned South Korea of 'unexpected consequences' if it lights up a Christmas tree-shaped tower near their tense border," the BBC reported. At issue, apparently, was "psychological warfare" -- standard North Korean lingo for anything deemed insolent or provocative. 


The annual Korean Christmas light drama, several years old now, may be one of the weirder stories of Christmas diplomacy, but it's hardly the only one. History has seen, in fact, many international events in which this winter holiday, whether in timing or tradition, has played a role. Here are just a few instances in which Christmas has figured into international relations, whether as an excuse, a peg for action, or a moment for reflection.

The stories are alternately troubling and heart-warming: just as the holiday has occasioned some of the more touching displays of camaraderie -- including amid devastating warfare -- it has also served to maximize casualties in carefully planned attacks. As always, events are what we make of them.

The Myth of the Battle of Trenton

In the winter of 1776, with morale low, General George Washington's forces crossed the Delaware River and entered New Jersey on December 25. The next morning, they attacked and defeated the British-hired Hessian forces stationed at Trenton. The popular account of the Battle of Trenton holds that the Hessians were drunk from Christmas celebrations. Modern historians dispute this. David Hackett Fischer, a professor at Brandeis, suggests in his book Washington's Crossing that this version was encouraged by British officers and loyalists as a way of accounting for the embarrassing defeat. It seems plausible, as well, that rumors of Hessian indulgence on the 25th might have circulated among Washington's troops, improving spirits prior to the battle; William Stryker's 1898 book on The Battles of Trenton and Princeton includes snippets from a so-labeled "Diary of an Office on Washington's Staff" with this intriguing entry:

Dec. 25 -- Christmas morning. They make a great deal of Christmas in Germany, and no doubt the Hessians will drink a great deal of beer and have a dance to-night. They will be sleepy to-morrow morning. Washington will set the tune for them about daybreak. The rations are cooked. New flints and ammunition have been distributed. Colonel Glover's fishermen from Marblehead, Mass., are to manage the boats just as they did in the retreat from Long Island.

The revolutionaries' victories at Trenton on December 26 and then Princeton on January 3 led to a tremendous upswing in morale on the American side and are now considered a turning point in the war. The British, in the following months, became increasingly pessimistic about the conflict.


The World War I 'Christmas Truce'

One of the most touching moments of international Christmas spirit, it's still not entirely clear how the entirely unofficial "Christmas truce" came about. On Christmas Eve in 1914, hostilities spontaneously ceased in several locations in Western Europe, as Christmas singing in the trenches turned to tentative spoken exchanges between German, British, French, and Belgian soldiers. On Christmas Day, soldiers on both sides ventured into no-man's land to bury their dead and the one-time enemies exchanged food and drink. Legend has it, with some evidence, soccer balls were even brought out into this otherwise lethal territory. 

Devastating war shortly resumed for another four years. Though the Christmas truce of 1914 is the famous and most well-established case, the University of Aberdeen announced in 2010 that one of its historians, Dr. Thomas Weber, had found a "letter written by a soldier of Scottish descent serving with a Canadian regiment, which suggests that festive ceasefires continued to take place throughout the war but were often downplayed in official war records." Apparently "heavy artillery, machine gun, and sniper fire ... had been ordered in anticipation of new Christmas truces." But what this letter showed, argued Weber, is that "[i]n fact, soldiers never tried to stop fraternising with their opponents during Christmas."


Pope Pius XII's 1942 Christmas Address Pleading for Peace

The Vatican drew criticism both before and after this radio address for its failure to denounce the German extermination of Jews, which by 1942 had become common knowledge among Allied officials and diplomats. This December 24 address did discuss the war, as well as -- obliquely -- genocide, though with little specificity. It has become one of the key texts for the debate over the Vatican's response to World War II. Below, a section of the address, posted in translation on the site of the Global Catholic Network, wherein the pope pled for peace. The sentence appearing to discuss genocide is bolded:

[W]ho can see the end of this progressive demoralization of the people, who can wish to watch helplessly this disastrous progress? Should they not rather, over the ruins of a social order which has given such tragic proof of its ineptitude as a factor for the good of the people, gather together the hearts of all those who are magnanimous and upright, in the solemn vow not to rest until in all peoples and all nations of the earth a vast legion shall be formed of those handfuls of men who, bent on bringing back society to its center of gravity, which is the law of God, aspire to the service of the human person and of his common life ennobled in God.

Mankind owes that vow to the countless dead who lie buried on the field of battle: The sacrifice of their lives in the fulfillment of their duty is a holocaust offered for a new and better social order. Mankind owes that vow to the innumerable sorrowing host of mothers, widows and orphans who have seen the light, the solace and the support of their lives wrenched from them. Mankind owes that vow to those numberless exiles whom the hurricane of war has torn from their native land and scattered in the land of the stranger; who can make their own the lament of the Prophet: "Our inheritance is turned to aliens; our house to strangers." Mankind owes that vow to the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline. Mankind owes that vow to the many thousands of non-combatants, women, children, sick and aged, from whom aerial war-fare--whose horrors we have from the beginning frequently denounced--has without discrimination or through inadequate precautions, taken life, goods, health, home, charitable refuge, or house of prayer. Mankind owes that vow to the flood of tears and bitterness, to the accumulation of sorrow and suffering, emanating from the murderous ruin of the dreadful conflict and crying to Heaven to send down the Holy Spirit to liberate the world from the inundation of violence and terror.


1964 Brink Hotel Bombing in Saigon

During the Vietnam War, a six-story hotel in central Saigon was used to house American officers. Following the suicide of General Francis G. Brink, the first U.S. commander in Vietnam, on a visit to Washington, the hotel was renamed by its occupants in his honor. On December 24, 1964, two Vietcong combatants in South Vietnamese Army uniforms drove into Saigon and to the Brink with a 200-lb charge in the trunk of one of their two cars. Talking their way past various officials, they parked the car in a lot beneath the hotel and retreated to a nearby café, where they observed the massive explosion at 5:45 pm. Two American officers were killed and 38 wounded. Nguyen Thanh Xuan, one of the two men who carried out the bombing, was quoted years later in a PBS special as saying, "Our commanders had ordered us to attack the place when the most Americans were there. And it was precisely as we had expected, since they were at the Brink's Hotel to plan their Christmas activities." Former Marine Corps University professor Mark Moyar, however, in Triumph Forsaken, says instead that "the Viet Cong had been trying to kill comedian Bob Hope, who had just flown in to perform a Christmas show for the troops and was planning to stay at the Brink Hotel." Unfortunately for the bombers, "Hope had not yet reached the hotel because he had been delayed by the unloading of his cue cards at the airport."


Apollo 8 Christmas Eve Broadcast

In this live television event in 1968, the crew of Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the Moon, showed photos of the Earth and Moon from the shuttle and took turns reading from the Book of Genesis. Aside from making for fantastic television, the Christmas Eve broadcast took place in the context of the U.S.-Soviet space race, in which the U.S. had largely been lagging. Though a religious reading was less out-of-place at the time then than it might be now, it was still notable enough to spark a lawsuit -- quickly dismissed -- alleging First Amendment violations. The main message of the astronauts to American viewers may indeed have been "a Merry Christmas," but the episode isn't without tinges of ideology and politics. The U.S.S.R., was, after all, an atheist state, as North Korea is today. If Christmas lights on a border can be considered "psychological warfare" today, triumphant space travelers broadcasting Bible readings in 1968 could surely qualify as well.


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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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