One thing most everyone agrees on about Christmas is that it is over-commercialized. But a new long-form ad from a United Kingdom supermarket chain has sharply divided those who find it a moving expression of the true Christmas spirit from those who declare it crass exploitation.
On Christmas Eve 1914, the year World War One broke out, German and Allied troops alike climbed out of the muddy trenches along parts of the Western front, met their enemies in the devastation of no man’s land, chatted and sang together, traded gifts, and were even rumored to have competed in a soccer match. The famed “Christmas truce” stood as a remarkable testament to the best of humanity in the midst of what was, up to that time, man’s worst inhumanity to man.
Coincidentally, as research for another project, I am currently reading Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by Modris Eksteins, which goes into some detail about the Christmas truce. As a British rifleman wrote:
On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us “Cigarettes,” “Pudding,” “A Happy Christmas” and “English—means good,” so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches. Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played “God Save the King” on a mouth organ.
It’s important to keep in mind what a ghastly conflict WWI was. Trench warfare was a living nightmare that reduced men to either emotional wrecks or fatalistic automatons. The war introduced new technologies that killed and wounded men in unprecedented numbers: airplanes, tanks, and ugliest of all, chemical warfare in the form of mustard gas. The Great War is generally considered the traumatic beginning of our modern era. It changed the Western world forever.
That hellish reality makes the Christmas truce all the more extraordinary and uplifting. On that day, amid fears of a possible surprise attack, the Christmas spirit “simply conquered the battlefield,” as Eksteins put it: “What had been isolated incidents of fraternization the night before blossomed… into wholesale camaraderie.”
Now Sainsbury’s, the second largest supermarket chain in the UK, has released an emotional three-minute holiday advertisement dramatizing that truce. Slate.com called it “a well-produced…exceedingly effective ad—one that might even cause you to shed a tear.”
The commercial centers on a young British soldier who dares to step out of the trench with hands raised. The Germans respond in kind and the sworn enemies lose themselves in impromptu friendship as described by the British rifleman quoted above. This makes it all the more poignant when they must return to their opposing sides to take up arms against each other again. The video ends with the men cherishing their gifts, and with the message that “Christmas is for sharing.”
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Many viewers were moved, but critics were swift and harsh. The Guardian accused Sainsbury of “co-opting the events for a purpose as crass as flogging groceries.” One campaigner against the company said: “Sainsbury’s advert is slick, manipulative, artful filmmaking—and also a tawdry, tasteless and inappropriate use of WWI sacrifices and memories.” Another critic added: “If there’s anything more tasteless and cynical than the Sainsbury’s Christmas advert, I’ve yet to see it.” A third tweeted, “Companies using the First World War as an effort to boost sales is disgusting and disrespectful to the fallen.”
But the ad is anything but cynical and disrespectful to the fallen; it touchingly brings them to life again for us. Those who believe that capitalism is always about greed may be dismissive of Sainsbury’s motives, but those who see no inherent conflict between economic interests and our higher nature understand that the ad is about the true meaning of Christmas.
Even Slate reluctantly recognized this, concluding that “this specific moment in time is worth celebrating… And maybe that’s enough to allow the ad’s (and the truce’s) overall message to triumph over its commercial nature.” That message is the one that filled the soldiers’ hearts that Christmas Day, the same one the angels proclaimed to the awe-struck shepherds: “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”