The Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center is pictured in the Manhattan borough of New York, December 23, 2014. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

FROM A letter home by a British soldier on Jan. 1, 1915:

“Well dear, you asked me to let you know what kind of Christmas I had. Well I never had a merry one because we were in the trenches, but we were quite happy. Now what I am going to tell you will be hard to believe, but it is quite true. There was no firing on Christmas Day and the Germans were quite friendly with us. They even came over to our trenches and gave us cigars and cigarettes and chocolate and of course we gave them things in return. Just after one o’clock on Christmas morning I was on look-out duty and one of the Germans wished me Good morning and a Merry Christmas. I was never more surprised in my life when daylight came to see them all sitting on top of the trenches waving their hands and singing to us. Just before we came out of the trenches (we came out of them on Christmas night) one of them shouted across, ‘Keep your heads down, we are just going to fire’ and they sent about a dozen bullets flying over the top of our heads. Now who would believe it if they did not see it with their own eyes?”

That was the famous “Christmas Truce,” spontaneously observed on this day 100 years ago in a number of places along the Western front, mostly by German and British soldiers. In the summer, when World War I began, many had thought it would be over by Christmas. Instead, it was only getting started, and higher-ups made sure there would be no more truces on Christmas Day in that long and awful war. There were, however, tiny, unofficial truces all along the line, as noted by Robert Sapolsky in a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal: Trucks delivering food to the front were not generally fired upon, and, often, men sniping from the trenches intentionally aimed high. The static warfare, with enemies frequently close enough to call out to one another, as well as the common plight of all, seemed to have created a bond of sorts, an understanding of the humanity of the other side.

Can this element of chivalry (which, of course, did little to mitigate the mutual mechanized slaughter of that war) be laid to the common Christian faith of the adversaries? Perhaps to some extent, but the soldiers of 1914 were probably, in the most conventional and obvious ways, far less religious than those who waged the merciless and utterly destructive Thirty Years’ War three centuries before. More likely, the moment of peace in that desolate place a century ago came from the hope and fellow feeling that is at the core of their faith and many others as well, although it too often languishes unattended by those who confine their beliefs to dogma, ritual observance and intolerance of different faiths from theirs. Christmas happens to be one day that moves many people of the world because of a warm and touching family story that evokes our best sentiments, and because of a universal hope, felicitously expressed in the King James Version of the Gospels, for peace and goodwill among all of us.