Silent Night, Holy Night – Jim Haefemeyer

Jim Haefemeyer was the scheduled speaker at Semi-Programmed Meeting for Worship on December 28, 2014.

This is the 100th Anniversary of the Christmas Truce of World War I. Many of you know the story: Soldiers shivering in cold wet trenches along the stagnant western front, with French and British on one side, the Germans on the other. Between them was a no man’s land, jagged with barbed wire and traps.

On Christmas eve the soldiers heard from across the no man’s land: Christmas carols.

Stille Nacht, Heilege Nacht. Silent Night, Holy Night. Some soldiers stuck their heads up, and shouted, “You no shoot we no shoot.” A spontaneous truce spread down the line.. Soldiers walked out into the no man’s land Some exchanged provisions They buried their dead together.

A century ago most people lived in rural areas where the nights were silent. It was dark enough to see the Milky Way on clear nights. Now most people in the world live in cities, with constant noise and light.

My ancestors came to Minnesota in the 1850s and settled near what is now Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. The Big Woods stretched from Southeast Minnesota around the west of the Twin Cities into Central Minnesota. The patch that was preserved for the park was farmers’ wood lots, and the two sections were divided more than 200 ways, so that no one could acquire enough land for large scale logging.

I sometimes camp there by myself. Several times I have been the only person in the walk-in camp area. I call it sleeping with the ancestors. Just me and the owls. And the Milky Way.

My great grandmother was born there, on a farm a mile to the south, January 1, 1869. She died at age 95, when I was 15 years old, so that I knew a person who grew up on these farms spread across the prairie. She was 45 at the time of the Christmas Truce. I try to imagine the farms, spread out across the snow covered fields, so that in the night you might just see a single light in a window of the next farm house. Perhaps they traveled by sleigh to church.

The United States did not enter the war until 1917. Many people, especially German Americans, opposed entering the war. In 1917 in New Ulm there was a protest of over 6,000 people against the draft. “Don’t make us kill our cousins” was the motto.

I try to imagine a time before Europeans settled in North America, when there were no clocks. The native people of the Americas built extensive structures to mark the movements of the sun. In this time of the year they watched the sunrise and sunset move south day by day. Perhaps they wondered: Would the sun rise higher again? What do we need to do to make it come back?

I like many people struggle with the winter darkness. It is likely an accident of the development of calendars that put Christmas three days or so later than the Winter Solstice. Or perhaps it is the first day in which an careful observer could see that the sun is moving north, and that there is hope for a rebirth of the world. We bring in trees and light candles to symbolize that hope.

I would like us to imagine the Silent Night, Holy Night as a vigil. We are waiting for the rebirth of the world, from near to far. We are sharing hopes and overcoming our fears. We are expanding our circles of compassion. Compassion for our own selves, for our families, for the community, and outward. Perhaps it is why we are here in this meeting.