World War I began in the summer of 1914, as hostilities between European nations boiled over into violence. The War lasted over four years, involved roughly 70 million soldiers, and claimed the lives of 15 million people. Marked by trench warfare over the European countryside, the War literally drew lines across the landscape between the French, British, and Russian on one side; Germany, Austria-Hungry, and Turkey on the other. But for a brief period — beginning on Christmas Eve, 1914 — German and British soldiers near Ypres, Belgium, informally agreed to a cease fire, and instead of exchanging artillery fire, exchanged gifts.
That night, German troops celebrated the holiday by decorating their trenches and singing Christmas carols — bringing a small, comforting part of home to the bloody stage of war. The British returned fire, so to speak, singing carols of their own. Then, communications became more explicit, as enemy combatants began yelling at each other: yelling season’s greetings, that is. Soon, a real-life Hug o’War followed. British and German troops alike left their trenches, meeting each other to exchange gifts of food, tobacco, and souvenirs from the other side. Joint prayer circles formed organically. Artillery fire came to halt.
Today, a cross, pictured above, marks the place where this spontaneous, informal cease fire took place, against all odds.
Bonus fact: While there was no Christmas Truce in World War II, toys played a role — or, rather, the reverse. Japanese invasions in the Far East and Pacific Rim severely hampered the importation of rubber into the United States. The U.S. government instituted a handful of measures to maintain the supply of rubber stateside, including rationing out current rubber supplies; salvaging used tires; issuing propoganda promoting car pooling (click through to see one such poster); and turning toward the science community to develop an alternative, synthetic rubber-like material. One of the early byproducts of these last measure? Silly Putty.
Related: Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub. Forty-plus reviews, with about 3.5 stars.