Peace on Earth? The Tradition of Christmas Ceasefires Across the World

There is a worldwide tradition of declaring ceasefires during the Holidays, but do these lead to lasting peace? Sanja Badanjak and Laura Wise draw on examples from the PA-X Peace Agreements Database to investigate these annual rituals, from Northern Ireland to the Philippines.

In the various Christian traditions, the end of the calendar year and the Christmas holidays signify a time of peace and reflection: day-to-day struggle and strife is to be set aside, at least for a short while. In the UK, setting aside the contentious issues of the day often comes with the label of ceasefire, harking back to the famed story of the 1914 Christmas truce, when fighting stopped for a day on the WWI front in Flanders, and soldiers from the two sides exchanged sweets and even played football in no man’s land. Today, the calls for Christmas ceasefires come attached to many issues, not all related to conflict and war: for instance, in 2020 John Keenan, the Bishop of Paisley in Scotland, called for a Christmas “truce in the regulations aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus; three years ago, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called for a Christmas “ceasefire” in the Brexit-related political antagonism which was (and still is) causing rifts in public life and within families. 

As researchers of peace agreements and peace processes, we are often intrigued when the term ‘ceasefire’ is used in situations that are not related to wars, because Christmas is indeed a time for declaring ceasefires in some conflict-affected countries. By reviewing newspaper reports, and peace agreements from the PA-X Peace Agreements Database, we find that agreeing to pause violence for Christmas and New Year – as with other major religious holidays, such as Easter and Eid – has become an annual ritual in some conflicts, whilst in others it was an ad hoc moment of peace that could not be sustained.  

The best example of this ritual is the Philippines, where annual debate over declaring a Christmas ceasefire between the Government and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP)/New People’s Army (NPA) has become a mainstay of political life.  Every year, reported at least as far back as 1987, the Government and the CPP engage in a back-and-forth concerning fighting over Christmas holidays. In the Philippines, the Christmas season starts in mid-December and lasts well into January, and both the Communists and the Government have tended to unilaterally commit to a ceasefire for the duration of the season. Sometimes, their back-and-forth included changing the duration of the ceasefire, shortening or extending it depending on exigencies of the particular moment, and sometimes it involved interventions from religious figures. In any case, the Philippine Government’s recent claim that there would be no Christmas ceasefire with the Communists need not be the last word on the matter: we anticipate that a last-minute series of proclamations will be made, continuing the long tradition of Christmas ceasefires in the Philippines.  

There are several other cases of internal conflict which regularly featured Christmas and New Year ceasefires. In Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) often engaged in three-day ceasefires from the 24th to the 26th of December, with the practice regularly reported on since the 1970s until the IRA declared a complete cessation of military operations in 1994. In Colombia, there are several instances of ELN and FARC announcing that they will not engage in fighting over Christmas. One of the key agreements between the Government and the ELN, the Declaration of Havana of 15th December 2001, even states that the commitments made will be ‘contributing to the celebration of Christmas and New Year in a peaceful atmosphere’.  

During the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, mediators attempted to keep a rather long holiday period fighting-free, with varying levels of success. For Croats, the holidays started with Catholic Christmas on the 25th December, while for Serbs, Christmas is celebrated on 7th January. Both of these communities, as well as the mostly Muslim Bosniaks, celebrated New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. In Croatia and Bosnia, holiday ceasefires were reported on in 1991-2, 1992-3, 1993-4, and 1994-5. More recently, in Ukraine, ceasefires and prisoner exchanges in the Donbas region have regularly been considered or negotiated for New Year’s holidays and the Orthodox Christian Christmas, which is celebrated on 7th January, as these churches follow the Julian calendar. 

There are also more ad hoc instances of Christmas ceasefires, some incredibly short-lived. In Sri Lanka, a country where Christians are only a small proportion of the population, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) called for a ceasefire for Christmas 2001, which was reciprocated by the Sri Lankan government, and lasted more than four months. The year before, however, the government only reciprocated on Christmas Day, stating, ‘in keeping with military tradition, our guns will be silent today to mark Christmas, a day of peace and reconciliation’. In December 1984, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador declared their intention to ceasefire in their conflict with the government for to three-day period over both Christmas and New Year. Their declaration was in response to a statement from San Salvador’s auxiliary bishop that it would be “useless” for the Church to request a ceasefire that year. The truce was reportedly broken by the FMLN on Christmas Day after the government did not reciprocate nor respond to the ceasefire. However, on Christmas Day in 1985 the government agreed to a ten-day ceasefire ”On the basis of Christmas spirit” that had been proposed by another bishop of San Salvador and was accepted by the FMLN. 

One commonality across most of these cases is the involvement of the church in brokering or attempting to broker – Christmas ceasefires. Religious leaders of all denominations are frequently involved in peacemaking and mediation to end violent conflict, so it is unsurprising that the church would use existing relationships with armed actors, and the holy significance of Christmas as a religious holiday, in order to call for a pause in fighting.  

Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, of the Roman Catholic Church in Nicaragua, mediated a two-day Christmas truce between the Sandinista government and the Contras rebels in 1987, and later became a key mediator in the peace process that culminated in 1990. In 2008, Catholic and Anglican bishops in Sri Lanka called on the Government and the LTTE to pause the conflict for Christmas and New Year; however, the government refused. Not all of the Christmas ceasefires were brokered by the ordained, however: a nationwide ceasefire across Bosnia which began on 23rd December 1994 was mediated by former US President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter in their capacity as private citizens.  

Another common factor between the Christmas ceasefires we identified was the limited nature of the truces, which in some conflicts was clearly stipulated by parties, and in others, was clearly an attempt to use a temporary pause to move towards a more comprehensive cessation of hostilities, even if talks later broke down. Some of the most limited Christmas ceasefires took place in Northern Ireland, where annually the end of the truce would be marked by a violent event. In 1993, the IRA declared its annual 72hour truce for Christmas, but Sinn Fein also stated that this did not mean that the IRA were likely to end their attacks on the British armed forces – indeed, only 16 minutes after the truce ended on 27th December, they attacked a police station with a mortar bomb.

The IRA’s Christmas ceasefires were also limited geographically – they applied to Northern Ireland but not to their activities on British mainland. Christmas ceasefires are also commonly what can be described as “no first strike” declarations: conflict parties make it clear that the truce is conditional on the other side not using it to their own advantage by attacking. The Christmas truces in the Philippines are usually accompanied by statements from both sides declaring that they will remain alert and prepared to retaliate in case anyone violates the ceasefire, indicating low levels of trust between the parties – trust that is a crucial ingredient for warring parties to move from temporary truces to more comprehensive talks about extended ceasefires or a political process.  

In the best cases, a Christmas ceasefire can be intended to show goodwill and facilitate talks, as was most likely the intention in the cases from Sri Lanka, Nicaragua, and Colombia. Offering a ceasefire for a holiday is a relatively low-cost way to show willingness to talk, while reserving the option of going back to fighting: one can save face and claim a moral high ground regardless of the outcome. Only rarely, a Christmas ceasefire is a baseline of understanding between the sides, even when everything else is unresolved, such as the Carter ceasefire in Bosnia. In most cases, the Christmas ceasefire is a calm before the storm, a chance to take a break, regroup and recoup. Several of the Christmas ceasefires announced in former Yugoslavia, Ukraine, and Northern Ireland perhaps showed this dynamic most clearly.  

Judging by the cases we have encountered, there is limited cause for optimism about the prospects for lasting peace when a Christmas ceasefire is agreed or announced, with temporary holiday pauses frequently ending as planned, rather than leading to further negotiations. It is most likely a respite, a pause which gives all involved a break, a moment of safety, before fighting resumes. For to call a holiday ceasefire really implies that after the holiday, fighting will resume, and war will reign: “It’s like saying I won’t kill you today or tomorrow, but I’ll kill you the day after”, said the Mozambican Foreign Minister Pascoal Mocumbi said in response to an announcement of an Easter ceasefire by the Renamo 

However, for some, the value of even a brief respite from violence cannot be underestimated. During the Christmas ceasefire in Sarajevo in 1994, a reporter interviewed Dr Mufid Lazović from the Koševo hospital, who described treating patients during the ceasefire. “We are treating casualties from the snow, not from the war, and though it may sound strange, these broken bones are a real relief”, he said. Christmas truces may be brief, and may end with a resurgence of violence, but even the most short-lived breaks in conflict are not just pauses for those bearing arms: they offer a respite for all those experiencing the violent conflict. And even in the most intractable conflicts, peacebuilders and mediators hold on to hope that a short pause just might be the truce that finally leads to a more sustained ceasefire between the parties.  

A common reflection at this time of year is that 2020 has been a very difficult year, and for those trapped in both a pandemic and violent armed conflict, it has been particularly devastating. Whilst we wait to see whether any armed groups will declare Christmas truces this year, let alone if they hold and grow into more comprehensive talks, if Christmas ceasefires do occur in 2020 then we echo the words of Karen N. Tanada, of the GZO Peace Institute at Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines: May the silence of the guns this Christmas serve as a foundation where the hope for a just and enduring peace can grow”.[1]