Wilhelm Busch, reflecting on Christmas past as a young German soldier in World War One, noted that the overwhelming sense of desolation and homesickness which had dominated the atmosphere, hindered all attempts to celebrate it.
After a large quantity of alcohol had been delivered and consumed, things went from sombre to surreal. Though Christmas celebrations were arranged, “everything went wrong”.
That dugout and this Christmas, any glimmer of consolation gained from communal conversations about gathering to mark the day had been lost.
No longer did this Christmas feel or even look as it could have.
Busch hints at a deep disconnect between the alcohol induced light-heartedness of his comrades and the heavy heart he felt for the clear absence of community marking the real value in Christmas.
Sorrow, loneliness and self-pity were being drowned in a sea of self-medication. With it, the beauty and healing that can come from a Christmas acknowledged and shared was abandoned.
Busch writes that he quietly left the noise behind him and walked outside to sit alone in the darkness.
Looking beyond the dugout towards what was left of an old village, he asked himself,
‘two years ago joyful people had celebrated Christmas there. Where were they now that their homes had disappeared?’[i]
According to Busch, this pondering laced with lament was interrupted by a Lieutenant who emerged from the smoke-filled, buoyant hole.
Not seeing Busch nearby the Lieutenant stopped stared out into the evening sky and then:
‘…pulled out from under his cape a glistening horn and put it to his lips.
The music sounded soft and strange as it carried over the devastated valley the tones of the carol:
‘Oh you joyful, Oh you blessed, grace bringing Christmas time…’
His blowing practically forced me to speak the words quietly along with him. And everything rose up in rebellion within me. ‘No! No!’ cried my heart. ‘It is not true! There is a village that’s destroyed. Every ruined house is a reminder of deep sorrow.
And here are the drunk, homesick men, back home the weeping women, children calling for their fathers.
Blood, death, misery … How can you play like that: “Oh you joyful…”?’ But he blew on unperturbed.
And it sounded accusingly: ‘The world was lost…’ ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘now that is altogether true.’ I had never perceived and seen it like that.
‘Christ is born…’ he blew into my thoughts. So bright, so jubilant that I had to listen:
‘Christ is born! Rejoice, rejoice O Christendom!’
Then it was as if scales fell from my eyes: this is Christmas, this and nothing else:
‘The world was lost; Christ is born! Rejoice, O Christendom!’[ii]
I see in this account a message deeper than that of the tragic complexities of war. Here we see the burden of expectations we place on ourselves by what we think Christmas should be, look and feel like.
The challenge issued to us from Busch is to stop seeking our perfect idea of Christmas, to at least refine what we expect Christmas to be. Instead, reflect on how Christmas finds us and on what it actually brings to us.
Christmas can be a confusing mix of wonder and dread. It can sweep us off our feet or remind us about the gloomy agony of isolation, ostracization. At the same time Christmas can answer our despair with inspiration, overwhelming generosity, and breathe new life into each dark and exhausting step.
It is an act of joyful remembrance; a time of acknowledgement that the knowledge of who God is, and what God is about, is confirmed in His free act to be free for, with, and near us.
To act on Advent and Christmas is to acknowledge with humility and gratitude, in prayer, a season set apart for new life.
It is a moment beyond moments, one that transcends money, presents, deifying and impressing our neighbours or family. Such a time as this must be grasped as we are grasped and held.
Christmas is a season unlike any other that consists of one of two days in the year where we get to stop and acknowledge that in Jesus Christ we are truly reached for.
This is a moment in time that is not centred on our ego, although it is for us it is not about us. As Karl Barth would term it, Christmas is an event carved by God’s good pleasure into a calendar otherwise dominated by awkward celebration, loss and lament. Here, on this day, we recall that God’s Word of freedom is decisively spoken.
To act on Advent and Christmas is to acknowledge the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
Without this, our celebration is an empty ritual filled with cheap decorations, avarice and religion. The weight of faulty products from a fallen people working too hard to please each other and ourselves.
To act on Advent and Christmas is to be moved politically and relationally beyond religion. It is the encroachment of God’s Kingdom come.
With Christ and in Christ, our celebration moves us beyond ourselves, our wallet and our pain. We are moved towards a light that was not lit by human imagination, but was and is an historical event in space and time. Responded to, reasoned about, joyfully acknowledged and reverently proclaimed.
“The world was lost;
Christ is born!
Rejoice, O Christendom!”
[i] Busch W. (1897-1966) Stories from my life and times, in Puritz, C. 2013, Ed. Christ or Hitler? Evangelical Press. Kindle Ed. Loc. 637-638
[ii] Ibid, loc. 642-652
Originally published 24th December 2014
©Rod Lampard, 2018
2 thoughts on “Wilhelm Busch’s World War One Christmas Story: Carols From a German Dugout”
Pax Peace and deep wisdom lies here in. Ciao
Thanks for the kind words Patrick. Merry Christmas, my friend.