On a bleak early December day in 1914, Pope Benedict XV tried to shine a light into the dark horror of World War I. He called for a temporary cessation of hostilities across the front lines in the war that had begun only months before. The Pope said let there be peace on earth during Christmas time, if only to still the instruments of death on the commemoration of the Savior’s birth.

Benedict’s call was ignored by the leaders of the warring countries. But in the trenches, something moved in hearts of the men who daily had been firing upon each other. On Christmas Eve 1914, at various points along the front lines, soldiers on both sides of the conflict enacted their own impromptu ceasefire. English and German troops began singing Christmas carols, first for themselves, then as the songs were reciprocated across the front, for each other. German carols were accompanied by British soldiers on bagpipes. English carols were accompanied by German brass bands.

Early in the dawn of Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and slowly approached the English line. They called out “Merry Christmas” in English. The British were initially wary, but they saw the Germans were unarmed, they climbed out of the trenches. Hands were shaken all around, gifts were exchanged. Germans lit Christmas trees around the tops of their trenches. Carols continued to be sung. At one location, the warring sides even engaged in a soccer game.

As German Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch later enthused, “How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”

It was the last time. Subsequent Christmas attempts to reignite that celebratory sense were quickly quashed by senior officers who threatened disciplinary action because, for heaven’s sake, this is war!

The propensity of the heart to find common ground, to make peace, is powerful, and clearly it is greatly enhanced at Christmas; that is part of the grace and beauty of this time of year. Christmas 1914 continues to serve as a dramatic reminder of the capacity to choose brotherhood and peace, to silence the triggers of supposedly irreconcilable differences. All such capacity lies in the power of individual choice—no one holds a gun to anyone’s head and forces them to hold grudges, revile others, disdain and dismiss views that do not enable their own. It’s time to climb out of our trenches and reach out a hand to those who will take it.