The well-documented Christmas ceasefire between British and German soldiers on the Western Front in Europe is nearing its centennial.
The combatants halted their pitched battles briefly on Dec. 24 and 25 to celebrate Christmas together, enjoy a drink, exchange gifts, and in some cases, play a game of soccer.
It was a show of humanity between enemies who found they weren’t so different from each other after all.
So what is it about this time of year that softens hard hearts and leaves Christians and secular people alike contemplating the meaning of the season?
Rev. Ian Victor, who presides over St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on Douglas Street in downtown Victoria, estimates about 70 per cent of people who attend their Christmas Eve services are not regular congregation members.
While few visitors come looking to be converted or even enlightened, he says, many incorporate the event into their family traditions, enjoying the singing of carols and the feelings of goodwill that envelop the room.
To make Monday’s service (7 p.m.) more accessible to non-churchgoers, St. Andrew’s will focus on readings with broad appeal, Victor says, and a sermon “that doesn’t presume prior knowledge of the (Christian) message.”
That message can still hit home, says one practising Christian.
As the convenor of the St. Andrew’s worship committee, church elder John Mitchell finds himself busy with details surrounding the service in the days leading up to Dec. 24. But once things get underway and he’s able to sit down and take in what’s happening, he sometimes finds himself transported.
“I like Ian’s sermons,” Mitchell says. “And sometimes what he says hits a nerve with me and I can feel God’s presence a little bit more.”
Victor explains that phenomenon with a reference to ancient tradition.
“In Celtic spirituality they talk about ‘thin places,’ those times when heaven seems a little closer,” he says.
“I think Christmas Eve seems to be one of those thin times, in that it provides (an experience) outside of the everyday.”
Mitchell notes how some people turn to God only in times of crisis, or when they feel they need a lift. He says he always feels he has a place to go to find comfort, and it doesn’t always mean going to church.
“It’s a special time for Christians, too,” Victor says, acknowledging the universal appeal of the Christmas season.
“But for people who are trying to live as disciples 52 weeks of the year, it’s not that much out of the ordinary. This is the same Christ we worship (all) year. It’s wonderful to celebrate the beginning of the incarnation, but it’s only part of the story. What Jesus grew up into is more important than who he was as a baby.”
In the Christmas Eve service, Victor says, “we try to move people past the bambino worship and consider the whole meaning of what we’re about and what his whole life stood for.”
Echoing Victor’s comments, Rev. Michael Caveney of St. Aidan’s United says 60 to 70 per cent of the 200-odd people who attend the Saanich church’s popular Christmas Eve service are not regular congregation members.
“I think people are just trying to get in touch with their spiritual values,” Caveney says, trying to explain why many people set aside the evening of Dec. 24 to attend church.
Similar to his counterpart at St. Andrew’s, Caveney’s sermon Monday night (7 p.m.) steers away from detailing the story of Jesus’ birth and focuses instead on the themes of Christmas Eve.
“For us it’s really a celebration of the fact that God cares,” he says. “You know, it’s those four cornerstones of our faith: peace, love, joy and hope. It’s just a celebration of that and we celebrate it through traditions, through being with family.”
Mitchell’s brow wrinkles as he delicately explains his dim view of the watering down of the season in popular culture. So many commercial and public references refer to it as “the holiday season,” purposely omitting the word Christmas in a show political and cultural correctness.
“People forget how this all started with Jesus,” he says.
The majority of local Christian churches host Christmas Eve services. To find one near you, simply do a web search for churches in Victoria.