This year is the 200th anniversary of the beloved hymn Silent Night, first performed on Christmas Eve, 1818, fittingly at Saint Nicholas parish in Oberndorf in what was then the Austrian empire. The music was composed by the organist and schoolmaster Franz Xaver Gruber, and the words by Father Joseph Mohr, the parish priest, who had penned the six stanzas, in the German original, as a poem.
There is a fascinating story to this song – the breaking down of the parish organ, the quick composition of a melody that could be played on guitar, the German words that seem inspired, more explicitly Catholic and sacramental than the three verses we have in English – which Mark Steyn recounts in his inimitable way, and well worth a listen while you’re cleaning up or wrapping up in preparation for the great feast.
The song brought joy and peace to many hearts in that brutal and cold year 1818, which finally saw the end the seemingly endless and ruthless Napoleonic Wars, which had followed hot upon the heels of the demonic fury of the French Revolution. Stille Nacht quickly became a Christmas classic, translated into dozens of languages, and performed by all sorts of artists in all sorts of styles, but, as with most things, the simplest versions are the most true to its essence.
There is the poignant story that a century later, in the midst of the carnage of the trenches in World War I, on Christmas Eve of 1914 a few months after the hostilities began, – with already tens of thousands killed and maimed – the soldiers stopped, and began singing this hymn, along with others. They cautiously clambered out of their trenches, into the middle of the desolation of No Man’s Land, exchanging chocolate, cigarettes and what conversation they could muster. As the British soldiers commented, ‘If we had been left to ourselves, I don’t think another shot would have been fired’. Besides the offended officers, one of the German soldiers most opposed to the brief truce was a young corporal named Adolf Hitler. ‘Have you no German sense of honour?’ he was reported to have growled.
Homo lupus homini, ‘man is a wolf to Man’, as the Latin proverb has it, but it need not be so. Love – not mushy feel-good subjective emotionalism, which often leads to wolf-like behaviour, but rather a strong, calm and virile willing the good of the other – is the message of Christmas, even at the cost of great sacrifice.
So sing the silent and holy hymn together this evening with your loved ones, on what instruments you can find, or a capella, and render glory to God on high. There is great joy and unity in music, the universal language, even, as Shakespeare would have it, the very food of love.
And we here at Catholic Insight wish a very holy, joyous and merry Christmas to one and all.