Welcome to The 12 Days of Christmas Songs: an attempt to uncover the forgotten history of some of the most memorable festive tunes. From December 14 through 25, we’ll be tackling one secular song and one holy song each day.
Updated at 10:20 a.m. on December 15, 2020.
It was December 1914. World War I had been raging for five months. Winter had settled in across the front. Pope Benedict XV suggested that, on Christmas, the troops engage in a temporary armistice.* No one thought such a thing could happen—this was war, after all. The Great War.
But in the week leading up to Christmas, German troops, longing for a bit of joy and home, began decorating the areas around their trenches. British soldiers began following suit. Step by tentative step, the pope’s suggestion became reality. And although the stories about what actually took place during the now-famous Christmas truce vary—some mention games of football; others mention tentative signs reading WE NO SHOOT YOU NO SHOOT; almost all mention relief and joy and the shaking of hands—most of them begin the same way: with German troops, from their side of No Man’s Land, singing a Christmas Carol. “Stille nacht … heilige nacht …”
The British knew the tune. They joined in: “All is calm … all is bright …”