It was a Christmas miracle in its own right. Though the lyrics for the carol had been written for several years, the melody was feverishly composed in a matter of a few hours on the very day in which it was first sung. Since then, this song has been sung by children’s choirs and even sworn enemies. This is the amazing, true story of the Christmas carol Silent Night and its impact on the world.
In 1818, a traveling theater troupe was performing in towns throughout the Austrian Alps. On December 23 they arrived at a small village named Oberndorf. That evening they were set to perform the story of Christ’s birth in a small church named Nicola-Kirche, that is, the Church of St. Nicholas.
Unfortunately, the St. Nicholas’ church organ wasn’t working and would not be repaired before Christmas. (Some versions of the story point to rust as the problem. Others say that mice were the culprits.) Because the church organ was out of commission, the actors presented their Christmas drama in a private home. Even so, that Christmas presentation put assistant pastor Josef Mohr in a meditative mood. (According to several sources, most notably the Silent Night Society, it’s at this point that nostalgia and romanticism may embellish some of the history.) Supposedly, instead of walking straight to his house that night Mohr took a longer way home. The longer path took him up over a hill overlooking the village.
From that hilltop, Mohr looked down on the peaceful snow-covered village. Reveling in majestic silence of the wintry night, Mohr gazed down at the glowing scene. His thoughts about the Christmas play suddenly made him remember a poem he had written a couple of years before. It was a poem, entitled, Stille Nachte, about the night when angels announced the birth of the long-awaited Messiah to shepherds on a hillside.
Mohr decided those words would make a good carol for his congregation to sing the following evening at their Christmas Eve service. However, he didn’t have any music to which that poem could be sung. So, the next day, Mohr went to see the church organist, Franz Xaver Gruber. Gruber only had a few hours to come up with a melody which had to be sung with a guitar, since the organ was broken. However, by that evening, Gruber had managed to compose a beautiful musical setting for the poem. On Christmas Eve, the little Oberndorf congregation heard Gruber and Mohr sing their new composition to the accompaniment of Gruber’s guitar for the very first time.
Since that time, Silent Night has grown in popularity in both religious and secular celebrations. The carol was translated from German into English by John Freeman Young in 1863. Not only that, but it has also been translated into over 300 different languages and dialects. In fact, Silent Night, was so well-known, it played a unique and unlikely role during World War I.
On December 24, 1914, German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium, for Christmas. Across the way were English and Scottish troops doing the same. The two sides decided to call a temporary “Christmas truce”. They began by placing candles on trees and even shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Eventually, the spirit was so mutual that there were “calls for a visit to the ‘No Man’s Land’ where they gave one another small gifts of jam, cigars, and chocolate.”
The story is even told that the sides joined in a game of soccer, where reportedly the Germans won 3-2. But it was there that these hundreds of troops not only exchanged gifts but also exchanged addresses and whiskey flasks as gifts. It is said that what truly started the mutual camaraderie of that evening, was when the men began to sing a Christmas carol together. The only carol commonly known to both sides was Silent Night, and for that one evening the troops laid aside their combat in favor of this carol.
Once word of the “Christmas truce” made it to the higher ranks of both sides, a decision was made that no such thing would ever happen again. In fact, in the years that followed, artillery bombardments were ordered on Christmas Eve to ensure that there were no further lulls in the combat. However, for that one evening, on Dec 14, 1914, the artillery blasts and bomb explosions were withheld and, for those troops, it truly was a much needed silent night thanks to Silent Night.