When World War I erupted in 1914, soldiers on both sides thought they would be home to celebrate Christmas. But the men on the fronts didn’t get home for Christmas, and many not at all, as the war dragged on four more years, killing more than 8.5 million men. The “war to end all wars” took a horrific human toll and transformed Europe.
However, on Christmas Eve of that first year of battle one of the most unusual events in military history took place on the western front. The weather abruptly became cold, freezing the water and slush of the trenches in which the men were bunkered.
On the German side, soldiers began lighting candles. British sentries reported to commanding officers that there appeared to be small lights raised on poles or bayonets. Although these lanterns clearly illuminated the German troops, making them vulnerable to being shot, the British held their fire. Even more amazing, British officers saw, through binoculars, that some enemy troops were holding Christmas trees over their heads with lighted candles in their branches. The message was clear: The Germans, who celebrated Christmas on the eve of December 25th, were extending holiday greetings to the enemy.
Within moments, the British began to hear a few German soldiers singing a Christmas carol. It was soon picked up along the German line as soldiers joined in harmonizing. The words were these: “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” British troops immediately recognized the melody as “Silent Night, Holy Night” and began singing in English.
The singing quickly neutralized hostilities and, one by one, British and German soldiers began laying down their weapons to venture into no-man’s land separating the two sides. So many soldiers on both sides ventured out that superior officers were prevented from objecting. An undeclared truce erupted and peace broke out.
Frank Richards, an eyewitness, wrote in his diary, “We stuck up a board with ‘Merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy stuck up a similar one. Two of our men threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads as two of the Germans did the same, our two going to meet them. They shook hands and then we all got out of the trench and so did the Germans.” Richards explained that some German soldiers spoke perfect English with one saying how fed up he was with the war and how he would be glad when it was over. His British counterpart agreed.
That night, enemy soldiers sat around a campfire. They exchanged small gifts—chocolate bars, buttons, badges, and small tins of processed beef. Men, who only hours earlier had been shooting to kill, were now sharing Christmas festivities and showing each other family snapshots.
The truce ended just as it had begun, by mutual agreement. Captain C. I. Stockwell, of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, recalled how, after a truly “Silent Night,” he fired three shots into the air at 8:30 a.m. on December 26 and then stepped up onto the trench bank. A German officer, who had exchanged gifts with Captain Stockwell the previous night, also appeared on a trench bank. They bowed, saluted, and climbed back into their trenches. A few moments afterwards, Captain Stockwell heard the German officer fire two shots into the air, and the war was on again.
“Silent Night,” the carol that briefly stopped World War I, is among the most recognizable Christmas songs and one of the most popular pieces of holiday music. During December, it can be heard in malls, churches, and concert halls around the planet. Ironically, the world might never have had this piece of music had it not been for a major, last-minute crisis at a church in the tiny village of Oberndorf, Austria.
The year was 1818 and within the church of St. Nicholas the mood was hardly one of joy that Christmas Eve afternoon. Curate Joseph Mohr, age 26, had just discovered that the organ was badly damaged. No matter how much he tried to pump the pedals, he could only bring out a scratchy wheeze from the aged instrument. By the time an organ repair specialist could reach the church, Christmas would be long over. To the young pastor, a Christmas without music was unthinkable and unacceptable.
Mohr had a natural talent for music. Now faced with a Christmas crisis, Mohr realized the only music for that evening would be led by guitar. He also knew that the traditional Christmas carols would not sound right on his stringed instrument so he decided to produce something new. Thinking about Jesus’ modest birth almost nineteen hundred years earlier, Mohr began writing “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Using simple phrases, the young cleric felt inspired as he retold the story of Christ’s birth in six short stanzas.
For the music, Mohr turned to Franz Gruber, a friend who was more skilled at composing than he was. Gruber was a teacher at nearby Arnsdorf. Mohr visited Gruber and his large family in their modest living quarters above the school, where Mohr explained his dilemma. Handing over the six stanzas, Mohr asked if Gruber could compose music to be accompanied by guitar in time for that evening’s midnight Mass. According to historians who pieced together the story, Gruber was struck by the innocence and beauty of Father Mohr’s words. Quickly, he got to work.
With barely enough time for a rehearsal, the two agreed that Mohr would play his guitar and sing tenor while Gruber sang bass. Following each stanza, the church choir would join in on the refrain. At midnight parishioners filled St. Nicholas church expecting to hear the organist playing resounding notes of Christmas music. Instead their church building was silent. Father Mohr explained that their organ was “down” but midnight Mass would include new music prepared especially for the congregation. With Mohr strumming the guitar, two voices sang and were joined by the choir in a four-part harmony. Father Mohr proceeded with the evening celebration of the Mass. Even without their organ, parishioners felt they had experienced a unique and memorable Christmas Eve service.
The story of “Silent Night” almost ended that evening as Mohr put the music away with no thoughts of using it again. After all, it was simply a stopgap solution for a temporary problem. Father Mohr was transferred to another parish and, for several years “Silent Night” was not sung. However, the organ at St. Nicholas continued to have problems, and in 1825 the parish was forced to hire a master organ builder—Carl Mauracher—to reconstruct the instrument. While engaged in that task, Mauracher discovered the music left behind by Mohr and Gruber. Its universal simplicity impressed the organ builder and he asked permission to make copies of “Silent Night.”
With permission given, Mauracher began introducing the carol to audiences, all of whom were enchanted by the piece. Soon troupes of folk singers who regularly traveled all over Europe to perform music, began adding “Silent Night” to their repertoires. Although the carol caused an enormous stir across Europe, Gruber and Mohr remained unaware of the accolades their music was receiving. Penniless, Father Mohr died of pneumonia in 1848 at the age of 55. He never learned that his song was spreading around the world.
On the other hand, Gruber first heard of the carol’s success in 1854 when the concertmaster for King Frederic William IV of Prussia began to search for its authors. When word reached Gruber, then 67, he sent a letter to Berlin telling the origins of the song. At first few musical historians believed that two men from obscure villages could have developed such an exquisite piece of music.
When Gruber died in 1863, his authorship was still challenged, although questions began to cease as historians confirmed that Gruber and Mohr were indeed the authors. That same year, the Reverend John Freeman Young, who later became the Episcopal Bishop of Florida, translated three stanzas of the carol into the English verses people still sing today.
Today, “Silent Night” is sung on every continent in scores of languages from the original German to Russian, from Swahili to Chinese. It’s been performed by religious and secular choirs. Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley have recorded the song. Regardless of the language or the musical expression, those who sing and hear the carol experience similar profound feelings of joy and peace.
Consider the experience of Nien Cheng from Shanghai, China. In August 1966, at the beginning of the upheaval known as China’s Cultural Revolution, 51-year-old Cheng was arrested and remained imprisoned in solitary confinement for nearly seven years. Cheng had committed no crime but was charged with being an enemy of the state because of her association with foreigners. In her biography, Life and Death In Shanghai, Cheng describes how, on one Christmas Eve, her spirits were fortified and her hopes renewed by hearing “Silent Night.”
“When the newspaper stopped coming on December second, I started to make light scratches on the wall to mark the passing days. By the time I had made twenty-three strokes, I knew it was Christmas Eve. . . . While I was waiting in the bitter cold, suddenly, from somewhere upstairs, I heard a young soprano voice singing, at first tentatively and then boldly, the Chinese version of ‘Silent Night.’
“The prison walls resounded with her song as her clear and melodious voice floated in and out of the dark corridors. I was enraptured and deeply moved as I listened to her. I knew from the way she rendered the song that she was a professional singer who had incurred the displeasure of the Maoists.
“No concert I had attended at Christmas in any year meant more to me than that moment when I sat in my icy cell listening to ‘Silent Night’ sung by another prisoner whom I could not see. As soon as she was confident that the guards were not there to stop her, the girl sang beautifully without any trace of nervousness. The prison became very quiet. All the inmates listened to her with bated breath.”
Joseph Mohr, the young priest, and Franz Gruber, his teacher friend who first sang the carol nearly two hundred years ago, would be very pleased at the way their song still touches hearts and inspires lives. Although written early in the nineteenth century, their “Silent Night” continues to impact people in the twenty-first.