Silent Nights, Holy Nights

Christmas eve. 1818.  In Oberndorf, Barvaria,  the carol “Silent Night” (Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!) was first performed at the Church of St. Nicholas.

Father Joseph Mohr was working at St. Nicholas as a young priest.  Because the old church pipe organ was broken, the threat of having a midnight mass without music hung over his head.  He found a poem which he’d written two years earlier and he asked the choir director, Franz Gruber, to set it to music.

Fr. Mohr and Gruber performed the carol as a duet at the Midnight mass with Fr. Mohr singing tenor and playing the guitar and Gruber sang bass.

The song was immediately popular throughout the village.  Copies of the sheet music soon began to spread around the country. By the middle of the 19th century, it was embraced throughout Europe, and was being sung by folk singers, church choirs, and in the courts of kings.

Father Mohr died penniless 30 years after that first performance, having donated his entire church salary to care for the elderly. He also founded a school in Wagrain, in the Austrian state of Salzburg.  The school — which still stands near the parish house where Father Mohr once lived — provided education for children of the poor. The song’s composer, Gruber, remained unknown in his lifetime.

For years, many believed that “Silent Night” was the work of Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven — a myth that persisted into the 20th century.  It wasn’t until 18 years ago that a copy of the original sheet music was authenticated and the original composers were officially credited.  It is now sung in 300 languages around the world.

Belgium.  1914.  Perhaps the most notable language in which this song has was sung occurred nearly a hundred years after it was written.  When German soldiers fighting along the Western Front in Belgium began decorating their trenches, they started singing Christmas carols.  When one of them, “Silent Night”(Stille Nacht), rose above their frozen trenches, it was loud enough for their enemy, the British, to hear.  The strip of military demarcation separating the two sides was narrow.  Narrow enough to be joined together by something so intoxicatingly familiar.  Hearing the tune that they associated with a holy-human connection with family and universal peace, they joined in the caroling.   So compelling was the singing in such a strange context, that the war was put on hold, and the soldiers came our of their barricades and greeted each other in “No Man’s Land.”   They exchanged gifts of whiskey and cigars.  In many areas, the truce held until Christmas night, while in other places the truce did not end until New Year’s Day. In one area, the opposing sides played a soccer match together.

Music – certainly this kind of music – has great power.  To transcend time.  To transcend culture, ethnicity, language.  It has the power to name and praise and honor an undeniable connectivity which joins each to all.

Sadly, there are many who fear this connection and brazenly dismiss and dissuade it as quickly and as carefully as it is cultured.

British commanders Sir John French and Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien disapproved of the truce.  They ordered artillery bombardments on Christmas Eve in the remaining years of the war. Troops were also rotated with regularity to keep them from growing too familiar with the enemy troops in the close quarters of trench warfare. The Christmas truce was a war tradition of the 19th century, and its disappearance marked the end of wartime protocols of that time.

Around the world.  2012.  In these days where the demarcation between war and civility are precariously fragile and where we are too frequently pulled from our hunger for and faith in peace by a false trust that violence can somehow save us, we need more silent nights.

Rev. Greg Ward, Bull Run Unitarian Universalists


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