So I hope you’ve seen a certain amazing ad by Sainsbury’s (one of the UK’s largest retailers) and the Royal British Legion. For those who don’t know, this story (the heart of it) really happened. After the first five brutal months of World War I, when trench warfare had just begun to unleash its hell, German and English troops declared an unofficial truce on Christmas. Crawling out of their frosted trenches, each side promised they wouldn’t fire if the other side wouldn’t. Gifts, carols, and football were exchanged. As a British private wrote in a letter on the following New Year’s day:
Our fellows have been in the habit of shouting across to the enemy and we used to get answers from them. We were told to get into conversation with them and this is what happened:
From our trenches: “Good morning Fritz.” (No answer.)
“Good morning Fritz.” (Still no answer.)
“GOOD MORNING FRITZ.”
From German trenches: “Good morning.”
From our trench: “How are you?”
“Come over here, Fritz.”
“No. If I come I get shot.”
“No you won’t. Come on.”
“Come and get some fags, Fritz.”
“No. You come half way and I meet you.”
One of our fellows thereupon stuffed his pocket with fags and got over the trench. The German got over his trench, and right enough they met half way and shook hands, Fitz taking the fags and giving cheese in exchange.”
(Letter from Private H Scrutton, Essex Regiment, published in the Norfolk Chronicle on January 1, 1915.)
All the proceeds from purchases of Sainsbury’s advertised chocolate go to the Royal British Legion (Britain’s top charity for veterans), in case you’re one of those freaking out over using a tragic war for “commercial gain.” Not much harm done, I say. But I’m even more interested in what the ad, whether it was intended to or not, says about war—and Christmas.
Over at The Guardian, Ally Fogg claims that the ad is dangerous and disrespectful for a couple reasons, but his biggest beef (skip to the bottom of the article) is this: “The film-makers here have done something to the first world war which is perhaps the most dangerous and disrespectful act of all: they have made it beautiful.” But Fogg has it entirely wrong. He misses what the ad is actually saying. Sainsbury doesn’t make the war beautiful, it makes Christmas beautiful.
In phrasing it this way, I don’t mean that Christmas isn’t already stunning on its own (as long as you have the eyes of faith to follow the star to a hidden manger), but ever since the angels lit up the sky and heralded the birth of Christ with the world’s best concert to date, God has used voices to point. To show. To reveal. To laud. To sing. Sainsbury’s ad, let me tell you, sings. In capturing the peace that flickered in the frozen wasteland of a dark, wretched war, it captures what Christmas is all about.
Folk musician John McCutcheon wrote a ballad about the same event. And it’s worth a listen before my next point.
The next they sang was ‘Stille Nacht,’
“Tis ‘Silent Night,’ ” says I.
And in two tongues,
One song filled up that sky.
“Silent Night” may or may not have been one of the songs echoing between the trenches that cold Christmas Eve night one hundred years ago, but let’s consider its role in the Sainbury’s ad for a minute. Let’s consider what the song is actually about. It’s quite the sly carol. “All is calm, all is bright”—really? A song of peace on a night of war, a night when Herod will soon be after babies’ blood, the night when God’s battle for the world deals a decisive blow through a sneak attack rivaling any number of Trojans hiding in a horse? Ah yes, very calm. (For now.) And very bright. War between heaven and hell has come and is on the eve of its D-Day, but there is peace knowing that even when He is just a baby, still slimy from birth and wriggling in swaddling cloths, Jesus has already won. Victory is inevitable. The real point of God’s Christmas war is Christmas peace, and even as Herod’s swords cleave toddlers and infants in two, peace is on its way forever.
Sainsbury’s ad doesn’t make World War I beautiful. As two armies lay down their arms in honor of the birth of the Prince (of Peace), it shows, rather, the beauty of the day when swords are beaten into plowshares, when bloody uniforms are tossed in the fire, and when death itself goes into the grave, never to return. Which is why the angels sang in the first place. “On earth peace, goodwill toward men.” And this is what makes the Sainsbury’s ad beautiful.
He shall judge between many peoples,
And rebuke strong nations afar off;
They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.
But everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree,
And no one shall make them afraid;
For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
For all people walk each in the name of his god,
But we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
Forever and ever. (Micah 4:3-5)