George Washington and his troops spent Christmas Day of 1776 along the Delaware River, preparing for a dangerous night crossing. The wind was blowing hard; the water was filled with floating chunks of broken ice. One 16-year-old soldier remembered that “it rained, hailed, snowed and froze, and at the same time blew a perfect hurricane,” although historian David McCullough observes that the wind was a blessing: It covered the noise of the crossing, and allowed Washington’s army to carry out a victorious attack on the village of Trenton.
To those who were there, that surprise Christmas success seemed to be a turning point. It secured Washington’s leadership, reinforced morale, and persuaded Congress to keep backing a war that had been going badly. To many, it suddenly seemed as if the revolution could really be won: “The troops behaved like men contending for everything that was dear and valuable,” one of Washington’s officers wrote to his wife. And perhaps he was right: Looking back, it does indeed seem that the events of that day changed the mood of the troops, the course of the war, and probably the course of history.
One hundred thirty-eight years later, British and German soldiers spent Christmas Day of 1914 facing one another along the Western front. But that morning, the Germans put up decorations in their trenches and began singing “Silent Night.” The British responded with carols of their own. After a few hours, soldiers began to poke their heads above the parapet; soon others scrambled up onto the no man’s land in between. In a few places, men exchanged trinkets or played soccer before climbing back into the trenches.
To those who were there, that extraordinary Christmas Day truce seemed to be a turning point. It showed that the war was pointless; it could not continue; it had to be stopped. One young soldier remembered feeling that “if only he could tell them all at home what was really happening, and if the German soldiers told their people the truth about us, the war would be over.” But he was wrong. Two days later, his unit received an order: Men found fraternizing with the enemy would be court-martialed and could be shot. The fighting began again, World War I lasted four more years, and hundreds of thousands of other young soldiers died before it was finished. Looking back, the Christmas truce was an anomaly, not a turning point.
Sixty-five years later, Red Army troops spent Christmas Day of 1979 along the southern border of the Soviet Union, preparing to invade Afghanistan. The invasion had begun on Christmas Eve; by Dec. 27, a KGB team was in Kabul. The mission was supposed to be peaceful—the USSR was coming to the aid of a fraternal Afghan communist government, after all—but one battalion commander told his troops to be prepared: “If a single shot is fired at you, you should open up with everything you’ve got.”
Even at the time, many in Moscow were skeptical. British diplomat Rodric Braithwaite has observed that “the Russians had foreseen all the disadvantages of forceful intervention” and even expected “international pariahdom.” But to those who were there, the invasion felt like a success—even a turning point. One Soviet official declared that “it had been a remarkably daring, successful and—considering the circumstances—cheap affair.” Another remembered that the Afghans “greeted our soldiers warmly, gave them flowers, and called them liberators.”
They were wrong. The Afghan war was a disaster, both at home and abroad. It created a backlash among the Soviet Union’s allies, dissatisfaction, and anger among soldiers and their families. It destroyed the national budget, the national reputation. Indeed, looking back, it seems clear that the invasion of Afghanistan was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. Exactly 12 years later, on Christmas Day of 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, and the country ceased to exist altogether.
And the moral of the story? There isn’t one, really—except this: Sometimes a victorious battle really is a victorious battle. But sometimes it isn’t. Whatever seems certain this Christmas—the victory of Donald Trump, the triumph of ISIS, the resurgence of the empire Gorbachev abandoned—might well look different, in a month, in a year, or even in a decade. Merry Christmas.