While most of us have sung the sweet carol “Silent Night,” how many of us know the rich history of this song? This year celebrates the 200th anniversary since Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber composed it on Christmas Eve, 1818.
On December 24, 1914, Europe was at war. Yet, for a few hours of peace, the bombs stopped. While mothers and sweethearts shed tears at home, soldiers on both sides decorated the trenches for their own meagre Christmas celebrations.
Suddenly, a man stepped forward into No Man’s Land. First in German and then in English, his exquisite tenor rang through the battlefield as he sang “Silent Night.” His name was Walter Kirchhoff, and he was a tenor with the Berlin Opera.
Recognizing the carol, British troops started to join in. Their voices swelled and rose with the age-old story. And, after the last notes had died away, they met in the middle of No Man’s Land. Gifts were given, and addresses exchanged. Despite the protests of supervising officers, they even had a rousing game of soccer together. For a fragile sliver of time, these weary men were no longer soldiers at war. Instead, they were friends.
Stanley Weintraub, a soldier who witnessed the event, later wrote, “Soldiers…wrote home the day after to their families, to their wives, and to their parents, saying, 'You won't believe this. It was like a waking dream.' They recognized that on both ends of the rifle, they were the same."¹ Weintraub later authored a book about the experience, Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce.
A few days before Christmas 1818, an assistant pastor named Joseph Mohr had a problem. His church’s ancient organ wasn’t working and couldn’t be repaired before the annual Christmas Eve service. What would the congregation sing if they had no accompaniment?
One evening, after watching a nativity play, he took the scenic route home. Gazing down on the village, he remembered a Christmas poem he had written just a few years before. “Perhaps I could revive that poem and find a melody for it,” he thought.
The next morning, Joseph visited his organist, Franz Gruber, and presented his dilemma. In a few short hours, Franz composed a simple melody with guitar accompaniment. That night, Silent Night debuted in the little church in Oberndorf. At the local church’s prison ministry, we enjoy singing this carol.
Soon, the carol found its way into the hands of two musical families, the Rainers and the Strassers. They immediately included it in their Christmas programs. And, in 1834, the Strasser sisters sang it for King Frederick William IV of Prussia. He was so impressed that he commanded his choir to sing it every Christmas Eve.
In 1838, the carol was first sung in New York, NY, by the Rainer family. And it was translated into English in 1863.
Today, “Silent Night” is sung in over 300 languages around the globe. Each Christmas, its strains echo the simple story of the Baby in the manger. At the local church’s prison ministry, we love this carol.
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1. “How Silent Night became the Christmas song that stopped World War I.” CBC News. Published December 19, 2014. Accessed from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/how-silent-night-became-the-christmas-song-that-stopped-world-war-i-1.2878263