Nobody knows where the Christmas Truce of 1914 began. Nor is it certain, even today, whether the truce began in one spot and spread, or broke out simultaneously in many places, the convergent evolution of numberless human hearts.
What is known is that 90 years ago today -- four months into what would eventually be called World War I -- thousands of British, French and Belgian soldiers spent a cold, clear, beautiful Christmas mingling with their German enemies along the Western Front.
Soldiers climb out of a trench in World War I. The losses from such warfare were massive on both sides.
The mysterious beginnings are fortunate. For want of the name of the first person (probably German) who proposed fraternization, or the place where it occurred (probably somewhere in Flanders), the Christmas Truce has acquired the aura of a miracle. In lacking a hero or sacred site, it has kept a single emotion at its core -- the desire for peace of the most literal and personal kind.
It began in most places with nighttime singing from the trenches, was followed by shouted overtures and then forays between the lines by a few brave men. There followed, in daylight, a burying of the dead that had lain for weeks on the denuded ground called no man's land. After that, large numbers of soldiers poured over the front lip of the trench.
Throughout the day they exchanged food, tobacco and, in a few places, alcohol. Some chatted, usually in English, a language enough German enlistees spoke to make small talk possible. In several places, they kicked around a soccer ball, or a stuffed bag functioning as one, although contrary to legend there appears to have been no official, scored matches.
Mostly, the soldiers survived, which is what they wanted from the day. They did not shoot each other.
Almost everywhere the truce was observed, it actually began on Christmas Eve, the high point of the season for the Germans. In many places, it lasted through Boxing Day, the day after Christmas observed by the English as a holiday. In a few parts of the line, hostilities didn't recommence until after New Year's Day, a holiday with special meaning for Scots and, to a lesser extent, the French.
War did resume, though. It was a truce, not a peace. What followed was misery, waste, loss and degradation on a scale that is difficult to imagine.
By the end of World War I in November 1918, the dead numbered: 1 million soldiers from the British Empire, 2 million Germans, 1.7 million French, 1.5 million soldiers of the Hapsburg Empire, 1.7 million Russians, 460,000 Italians, hundreds of thousands of Turks, and 50,000 Americans. The political and territorial consequences were numerous and complicated. The certain one is that the Great War did not end war, but instead laid the foundations for another one a generation later.
Against that background, the Christmas Truce of 1914 stands out with particular poignancy. While there had been truces for religious and secular holidays since classical times, the events that occurred 90 years ago this week were a spontaneous, unled cry for sanity before the advent of industrialized war.
"It is the last expression of that 19th-century world of manners and morals, where the opponent was a gentleman," says Modris Eksteins, a cultural historian at the University of Toronto, who has written on the truce. "As the war goes on, the enemy becomes increasingly abstract. You don't exchange courtesies with an abstraction."
There were a few brief, scattered truces in 1915, and virtually none thereafter. The reason was not simply that commanders were on the lookout. The soldiers themselves had become emotionally hardened by years of fighting.
"The ones who survived, who lived to see other Christmases in the war, themselves expressed amazement that this had occurred," Eksteins said. "The emotions had changed to such a degree that the sort of humanity seen in Christmas 1914 seemed inconceivable."
What's curious, though, is that in some respects the Christmas Truce is now moving toward us, not away.