“Silent Night” THE CAROL HEARD AROUND THE WORLD
One hundred and ninety-eight years ago, December 24, 1818 in Oberndorf, Austria, “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht” was heard for the first time. The congregation at that Midnight Mass in St. Nicholas Church listened as the voices of the assistant pastor, Fr. Joseph Mohr, and the choir director, Franz Xaver Gruber, rang through the church to the accompaniment of Fr. Mohr’s guitar. On each of the six verses, the choir repeated the last two lines in four-part harmony. It was on that Christmas Eve 1818, a song was born that would wing its way into the hearts of people throughout the world. Now translated into hundreds of languages, it is sung by untold millions every December from small chapels in the Andes to great cathedrals in Antwerp and Rome.
STORY BEHIND THE COMPOSERS
In 1817 Father Joseph Mohr came to serve St. Nicholas Church in the town of Oberndorf near Salzburg, Austria. He had with him the words to a song that he had written in 1816. He asked Franz Gruber, a teacher of a school in the town of Arnsdorf, to write a melody for this poem. On this Christmas, the organ of the church was broken so the song was sung accompanied by a guitar only.
On December 24, 1818 Joseph Mohr journeyed to the home of musician-schoolteacher Franz Gruber who lived in an apartment over the schoolhouse in nearby Arnsdorf. He showed his friend the poem and asked him to add a melody and guitar accompaniment so that it could be sung at Midnight Mass. His reason for wanting the new carol is unknown. Some speculate that the organ would not work; others feel that the assistant pastor, who dearly loved guitar music, merely wanted a new carol for Christmas.
Later that evening, as the two men, backed by the choir, stood in front of the main altar in St. Nicholas Church and sang “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” for the first time, they could hardly imagine the impact their composition would have on the world.
Karl Mauracher, a master organ builder and repairman from the Ziller Valley, traveled to Oberndorf to work on the organ, several times in subsequent years. While doing his work in St. Nicholas, he obtained a copy of the composition and took it home with him. Thus, the simple carol, began its journey around the world.
Perhaps this is part of the miracle of “Silent Night.” The words flowed from the imagination of a modest curate. The music was composed by a musician who was not known outside his village. There was no celebrity to sing at its world premiere. Yet its powerful message of heavenly peace has crossed all borders and language barriers, conquering the hearts of people everywhere.
THE STORY of the WORLD WAR I CHRISTMAS TRUCE of 1914
Exactly 102 years ago, the men in the trenches heard something unusual: singing.
On a crisp, clear morning 100 years ago, thousands of British, Belgian and French soldiers put down their rifles, stepped out of their trenches and spent Christmas mingling with their German enemies along the Western front. In the hundred years since, the event has been seen as a kind of miracle, a rare moment of peace just a few months into a war that would eventually claim over 15 million lives. What actually happened on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of 1914?
Pope Benedict XV, who took office that September, had originally called for a Christmas truce, an idea that was officially rejected. Yet it seems the sheer misery of daily life in the cold, wet, dull trenches was enough to motivate troops to initiate the truce on their own — which means that it’s hard to pin down exactly what happened. A huge range of differing oral accounts, diary entries and letters home from those who took part make it virtually impossible to speak of a “typical” Christmas truce as it took place across the Western front. To this day historians continue to disagree over the specifics: no one knows where it began or how it spread, or if, by some curious festive magic, it broke out simultaneously across the trenches. Nevertheless, some two-thirds of troops — about 100,000 people — are believed to have participated in the legendary truce.
Most accounts suggest the truce began with carol singing from the trenches on Christmas Eve, “a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere”, as Pvt. Albert Moren of the Second Queens Regiment recalled, in a document later rounded up by the New York Times. Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade described it in even greater detail:
“First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same carol to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
The next morning, in some places, German soldiers emerged from their trenches, calling out “Merry Christmas” in English. Allied soldiers came out warily to greet them. In others, Germans held up signs reading “You no shoot, we no shoot.” Over the course of the day, troops exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons and hats. The Christmas truce also allowed both sides to finally bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks on “no man’s
land,” the ground between opposing trenches.
The truce was widespread but not universal. Evidence suggests that in many places firing continued — and in at least two a truce was attempted but soldiers attempting to fraternize were shot by opposing forces.
And of course, it was only ever a truce, not peace. Hostilities returned, in some places later that day and in others not until after New Year’s Day.
“I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence,” one veteran from the Fifth Batallion the Black Watch, Alfred Anderson, later recalled to The Observer. “It was a short peace in a terrible war.”
As the Great War resumed, it reeked such destruction and devastation that soldiers became hardened to the brutality of the war. While there were occasional moments of peace throughout the rest of World War I, they never again came on the scale of the Christmas truce in 1914.
Yet for many at the time, the story of the Christmas truce was not an example of chivalry in the depths of war, but rather a tale of subversion: when the men on the ground decided they were not fighting the same war as their superiors.
With no man’s land sometimes spanning just 100 feet, enemy troops were so close that they could hear each other and even smell their cooking. The commander of the British Second Corps, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, believed this proximity posed “the greatest danger” to the morale of soldiers and told Divisional Commanders to explicitly prohibit any “friendly intercourse with the enemy.” In a memo issued on Dec. 5, he warned that: “troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a ‘live and let live’ theory of life.”
Indeed, one British soldier, Murdoch M. Wood, speaking in 1930, said: “I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.” Adolf Hitler, then a Corporal of the 16th Bavarians, saw it differently: “Such a thing should not happen in wartime,” he is said to have remarked. “Have you no German sense of honor?”
Still, a century later, the truce has been remembered as a testament to the power of hope and humanity in a truly dark hour of history. It has been immortalized and fictionalized in children’s novels like Michael Foreman’s War Game, in films such as Joyeux Noel and Oh, What a Lovely War! To mark the centenary, 2014, Prince William unveiled a memorial on Dec. 12: a metal frame representing a soccer ball, with two hands clasped inside it. And though the Christmas Truce may have been a one-off in the conflict, the fact that it remains so widely commemorated speaks to the fact that at its heart it symbolizes a very human desire for peace, no matter how fleeting.
It has become tradition at the end of Christmas Eve evening worship services for everyone in the congregation is holding a lit candle to symbolize the light of Christ. The candles are lit one by one by passing the flame, candle to candle until everyone’s lit. As we sing, “Silent Night,” we raise our candles as a symbol that Christ is the light of the world. We take Christ’s light into the world – a message of hope, love and peace.