Silent Night, Heilige Nacht – A Night of Peace and Joy

The beloved hymn Silent Night was 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 providential story to this endearing and enduring song. After a flood, the parish organ as unusable, so Gruber quickly composed a melody that could be played on guitar, fitting the notes to Father Mohr’s poem. The German words that seemed 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 to 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, including the classic by Bing Crosby:

But, as with most things, the simplest versions are the most true to its essence and its origin:

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, and others joined in. 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’.

The officers would have none of it, and one of the German soldiers who most agreed with the warmongers, and 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. All those soldiers who had shared that brief moment of peace had to be taken away from the front, for, regardless of threats, they to a man refused to fight each other.

Homo lupus homini, ‘man is a wolf to Man’, as poet Terence had it, but it need not be so. Love – not mushy feel-good subjective emotionalism, which often ends up in 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.