By: Philip Harker

Illustration credit: Kathy Lee

It’s December of 1914. After months of back and forth between the Belgian, British, and French forces and the Imperial German Army, the war (which many of the men thought would be over by now) has fallen into a stalemate. With most forces firmly entrenched in France and Belgium, gaining ground is near impossible. All that anyone can do is sit in their trench, wait, and occasionally launch explosive shells at the other side, only meters away.

On Christmas Morning, though, a miracle happened. All along the line, British and German soldiers woke up to a frozen ground and a dusting of snow, which was a welcome change from the wet and muddy weeks of December.

For just one day, there was peace. Up and down the British line, the soldiers of both sides put their differences aside, and celebrated Christmas (or Weihnachten) together as one. The story has been told over and over through the last 107 years, sometimes with hearsay accounts of the men trading gifts, singing carols, and playing a game of soccer, but there’s a lesson to be learned from the 1914 Christmas Truce: traditions matter to people. Even enough to motivate them to climb out of the safety of a trench.

Traditions of Yesterday and Today

Of course, Christmas has changed in our minds over the last century. Christmas has gone from something that only the elite can afford to observe to something that is celebrated by billions. At the same time though, it has transformed from a purely spiritual holiday to an end-of-year marketing campaign. Christmas traditions have also been sources of controversy in more recent memory as well. In 2015, Starbucks came under flak for changing its traditional December Christmas-themed cups to a less festive solid red colour.

Controversial coffee cup colours aside, the debate of tradition versus progress has some far more important applications. Social issues like civil rights, same-sex marriage, and freedom of gender expression all have one side arguing on the basis of tradition. Why change the status quo? 

For many, tradition isn’t as important in 2021 as it was in 1914. Perhaps the abandonment of tradition is a part of how a culture grows up, a symptom of our declining interest in spirituality and religion. Perhaps tradition should be viewed as a restriction, nothing but peer pressure from our ancestors.

What Tradition Should Be

In 1914, many of the men celebrating Christmas in the trenches were doing so for the sake of doing so. They thought about Christmas not as a voluntary celebration, but something that was embraced solely because it invariably happened once a year. That is an example

of tradition at its weakest: unconditionally accepted and dogmatically defended. This is the form of tradition that enforced segregation in 1950s schools. This is the form of tradition that prevented same-sex marriage in much of the United States until 2015. 

Tradition should not be something that is blindly followed. Tradition can be so much more than that. If people in all cultures thought about tradition not just as something they felt pressured into following, but something that they understand and actively choose to partake in, it could be so much more. 

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