I was in a classroom, leaning over my desk as my Storytelling tutor dimmed the lights in the room, when I watched the 1914 Christmas ad for the first time. As someone who hadn’t lived in the UK until 2017, I’d apparently missed out on a number of cultural references and customs which to me were completely obscure. Tear-jerking Christmas ads were one of those.
As I heard sniffs, noses blowing and sighs all around me, and as tears irremediably slid down my cheeks, I understood what I’d missed out on. The 1914 Sainsbury’s Christmas ad is one of the best Christmas ads of all time, building on a much novelised historical event to tell a deep human story.
It all began when Director Ringan Ledwidge sent in a treatment for the ad.
Christmas is for sharing
Ringan (who passed away just last week at the age of 50) had a deep emotional connection with the story that Sainsbury’s was looking to represent on screen. According to a behind-the-scenes video on the ad, the director shared a poem which had been shared (written?) by his great-uncle after World War I, and it was clear from the start that Ringan had great passion and energy all throughout the project.
At the same time, Sainsbury’s knew the ad needed to be respectful. Any work of fiction treading on the topic of war, no matter how historically accurate it is, will inevitably act as a chance to remember all the ones who have fallen and all the people who are still serving in the army. Keeping in mind the over 17 million deaths of World War I, the brand owed it to them to get the story right.
Though some publications did not express much satisfaction with the ad at the time (one accused Sainsbury’s of “making the war look beautiful”), consumers still remember it fondly, thanks to its high production value and its slight sense of nostalgia flowing through the entire short film. And as we all pay a tribute to Ringan Ledwidge in Adland, we can’t help but see this beautiful ad as one of the most important pieces of his legacy to the industry.
The Christmas Truce of 1914
In truth, the Sainsbury’s 1914 ad is based off a real historical event. The Christmas Truce of 1914 was a series of unofficial ceasefires which took place along the Western Front of the First World War; it started on Christmas Eve, and among signed armistices, gifts and songs, 48 hours went by, and very few bullets were fired.
1914 was also the year when World War I began. The Christmas Truce came five months after hostilities had started, with already 1 million soldiers in the death toll worldwide. And just as everybody was receiving gifts from their beloved ones, the guns went almost silent on Christmas Eve, and the soldiers began celebrating Christmas in the trenches.
It is known that Germans built trees with burning candles on their front, and this gesture was cheered by the English. The soldiers began to sing Silent Night, just like we can see in the ad.
As the day broke, German soldiers were “bobbing up and down” from the trenches, but the British were not firing. One of the Germans gathered up the courage to climb out, and two officials met to sign a 48-hour armistice, allowing soldiers to exchange greetings and gifts on Christmas. This effort was extended across most of the line, but it remained focused in a very small area. A lot of soldiers died on Christmas Day too, as the Germans on the opposing front were not looking to stipulate a truce – albeit temporary.
But those who did exchange gifts, they would give others everything they had, from tobacco to smokes and chocolate, in a unique moment of humanity that will be remembered across all of human history. Even in the middle of the atrocities of war, especially one as devastating as the First World War, a collective sense of humanity allowed some soldiers to come together and celebrate Christmas –albeit for a very brief time.
The ad itself by Sainsbury’s introduces a fiction element into these historical facts, but it does a brilliant job nonetheless. German and British soldiers are seen fighting in trenches on the night of Christmas Eve, and as the Germans start singing Silent Night, the British join in with their own English version.
On Christmas morning, the two sides call for a truce and get together for a while. They play games, share memories and gifts, and even play a football match on the battlefield. Historians have praised the ad for the accuracy and respect it demonstrated in portraying the historical period, with shaved soldiers, uniforms, cap badges and even the trenches themselves. There is a great deal of respect in the 1914 Christmas ad, one that certainly makes it sound and look more authentic to any viewer out there.
Sainsbury’s work, however, was not solely about showing delicacy and respect. The brand worked with The Association for Military Remembrance to ensure that the soldiers and historical circumstances could be portrayed in the most accurate way possible. Military historians such as Taff Gilingham have worked on the project, and a number of experts in British military history from the Association all came together to help. Sainsbury’s choice was particularly wise in this regard. The Association’s historians knew everything about how a soldier from 1914 would have behaved, including how they would have thought, their habits and motivations. They would even know what set a 1914 soldier apart from one who joined in 1915, or 1916.
But just as the two sides are enjoying some peace of mind on Christmas Day, the ad shows them looking at the horizon, as fires and bombs keep going off in the distance. Everybody goes back to their place in the trenches, and as they dig in their own pockets, two soldiers find a gift from the opposing side – a chocolate bar from the British, a cracker from the Germans. This powerful moment embodies the core message of the ad: Christmas is about sharing and the spirit of sacrifice. No matter the circumstances.
And of course the chocolate bar was not just a prop. Sainsbury’s grabbed a Belgian chocolate recipe, created the bars with as accurate a packaging as possible, then went on to sell them in front of every store, with the proceeds going to The Royal British Legion – with which Sainsbury’s had partnered for the 2014 holiday season.
About 7 years later, the ad is still regarded as one of the best Christmas ads of all time. In truth, those are quite easy to spot; they gathered tens of billions of views on YouTube over the years, and they keep collecting more and more as time passes, with the most nostalgic viewers going back to look for them around Christmas time. The 1914 ad in particular is a huge source of inspiration for any creative out there, in terms of production value, direction and storytelling. No wonder it racked up 23 billion views.
The ad plays on the value and power of remembrance. It helps us keep in mind those who have lost their lives in the war, as well as those who are still serving today. Their spirit sacrifice as they travelled away from their families, even skipping multiple Christmas days altogether, is perfect for a Christmas story and it inspires all of us to do our part in this world. Even if that means sacrificing something for the ones we love.
Is the 1914 one of the best ads of all time? Possibly. Did it romanticise life in the trenches and a historical event? Certainly. But in all honesty, what does it even matter if there was a football match or not? What truly matters is that the Christmas Truce of 1914 did actually take place. In the toughest times, even in the heat of war, our innermost sense of humanity and fraternity can still break out. And that is something that the 1914 Christmas ad portrays incredibly well.