All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914

December 20, 2007.By Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio.

A new production reminds us of the power of music to make peace, even in wartime. Cantus vocal ensemble and Theater Latte Da are retelling the true story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, when World War I soldiers set down their arms to celebrate the holidays with the enemy.

Minneapolis, Minn. — When World War I broke out, commanders on all sides told their soldiers, "You'll be home in time for Christmas."

But it quickly became clear there was no immediate end in sight. Theater Latte Da Artistic Director Peter Rothstein says as the holidays approached, soldiers fighting in the trenches along the Belgian border were miserable.

"They were living in subterranean conditions, up to their knees in mud," says Rothstein. "Food was scarce, the rats and the lice had taken over the trenches. These conditions were inhuman. In fact, in that first winter of the war, more men died from infection and disease than died from enemy fire."

It's what happened in the coming weeks that inspired Rothstein to create "All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914." It's a musical retelling of one of the more remarkable events of what some people called "the war to end all wars."

Enemy trenches were just a few yards apart, divided by "no man's land." At night, the various troops took up singing their favorite carols and ballads, in French, English and German. They competed, at first drowning one another out, and then applauding each other's efforts.

Finally on Christmas Day, along several sections of no man's land, soldiers on both sides laid down their arms for a holiday truce.

"Some of them lasted an hour, and some of them lasted up to a week," says Rothstein. "The men met in no man's land, exchanged gifts of tobacco and rum and chocolate, even photographs of family. Some of them played soccer, and they buried each other's dead. And then they returned to their trenches, and the war resumed for another four years."

Rothstein spent close to two years collecting firsthand accounts of the truce, traveling to war museums and libraries in Belgium and London.

He approached Cantus vocal ensemble artistic director Erick Lichte to work with him. Lichte says having a dramatic story made it easier and more inspiring to arrange the music.

"It was great to have these scenes in our head. When we have the drinking and the camaraderie, we have this wassail song that's really expressive, with the burying of the dead we have a setting of Auld Lang Syne," says Lichte.

Cantus performed excerpts of "All is Calm" for a group of veterans in for a day of physical therapy at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center.

Tom Donovan served in World War II, or as he calls it, "the WAR war." By the end of the performance, Donovan is clapping heartily with moist smiling eyes.

"I think this is tremendous! I went through two Christmases [in World War II]. It's always hard," Donovan laughs sadly.

Cantus Artistic Director Erick Lichte says his group is regularly asked to sing Christmas music at the holidays.

"And you can lose sight as to why you're singing that Christmas music," says Lichte. "And I think this story reminds us. It is about peace on Earth, goodwill toward men -- that's not just a thing you sing in a carol you like the tune of."

Lichte says "All is Calm" has brought new life to the music. Director Peter Rothstein says what makes the story of Christmas 1914 extraordinary is that everyday soldiers transformed themselves from warriors into peacemakers.

"It puts a human face on war," says Rothstein. "The heroes of the story are not the kings and the queens and the generals and the army strategists, and those people that make up biographies and history books. They were the men in the trenches, and they took it upon themselves to have a moment of peace and to honor the spirit of Christmas."

Rothstein says such a remarkable story should be a part of our history books.

Theater Latte Da and Cantus vocal ensemble perform "All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914" at churches in Minneapolis and Excelsior throughout the weekend.