On this very night, Christmas Eve, two hundred years the carol ‘Silent Night’ was first sung in a little Catholic church in Austria.
It was composed during a turbulent time in Europe when the continent was reeling in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. These were a series of major conflicts lasting 12 years, from 1803 to 1815, involving the French Empire and its allies, led by Napoleon I, against an array of European powers usually led by the United Kingdom.
In 1816, a year after the Wars ended, Josef Mohr, a Catholic priest from an Austrian town near Salzburg which had just come under Austrian rule, wrote a poem in German called “Stille Nacht” to commemorate the coming of peace. He put it aside for two years before he returned to the poem in the winter of 1818. The river Salzbach had flooded Mohr’s parish church of Saint Nicholas and the organ could not be played. So that the congregation could have music on Christmas Eve, Mohr asked a church organist, Franz Xaver Gruber, from the neighbouring village to set his poem to music to be sung by two voices and a guitar. Gruber wrote the arrangement for Mohr’s poem in the afternoon of Christmas Eve.
The priest and the organist waited until the conclusion of the Mass on Christmas Eve before singing the song. Mohr sang tenor and strummed the guitar while Gruber sang bass, with the congregation joining in by repeating last line of each verse.
The carol might have remained a one-night wonder but for the organ repairman, Karl Mauracher, who, hearing the song, took the sheet music home with him to Tyrol, an area known for its choirs. The choirs there began singing the tune, and eventually it spread its way to other parts of the Austrian Empire, and eventually to the rest of the world.
One hundred years after Silent Night was first sung, the First World War came to an end. During the first year of the Great War, it is recorded that on Christmas Eve 1914, the year the War started, British and French soldiers were in a standoff against German troops in Ypres in Flanders, Belgium. At some point the two sides began singing Christmas carols to each other. Their singing ‘Silent Night’ together – one side in German and the other in English – led to a temporary cease-fire with soldiers from both sides meeting in the middle “No Man’s Land” to trade cigarettes and sweets, play football and sing carols.
The carol’s English version begins with the words:
Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
‘Round yon Virgin Mother and Child,
Holy Infant so tender and mild.
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
There is an eternal peace – ‘heavenly peace’ – that awaits us when we die. God willing, it is a peace we all will enter. Meanwhile, here on earth it can be difficult to attain. We can catch a glimpse of it when we see a little baby asleep or at its mother’s breast, as the infant Jesus was with Mary. But our messy and complicated adult lives, with their worries and fears, make heavenly peace difficult to attain.
Yet, it was to bring us this peace that Christ came among us first as the child of a young Palestinian couple. It is, he said in later adult life, ‘a peace the world cannot give’.
May this truth of Christmas touch us anew this Day and may this heavenly peace be yours this Christmas.
And with Tiny Tim we ask: God bless us all, everyone.
Holy Name, Jesmond
25 December 2018