The story has become yet another chapter in the book of Christmas legend.
The year was 1914 and soldiers on both sides of the battlefield somewhere in France were enduring a dark and frozen Christmas Eve night. World War I — the Great War, as it was called — eventually took the lives of more than 10 million people. But it is doubtless that the mostly-young men of that Christmas Eve were contemplating much more beyond their longings for home and warmth and family.
When soldiers on the German line placed candles on small Christmas trees and raised them above their trenches it touched the hearts of their enemies. These men — thousands of them on both sides — spontaneously began to sing the carols of Christmas.
What began in those moments became the legendary Christmas truce. Weapons were put down, men ventured from their fortifications and gathered in No Man’s Land to make note of the season together. They exchanged small gifts after agreeing to a truce so that all could celebrate the season.
And so for a short period of time, no shots were fired. The following day, men who only hours before fought fiercely now stood side by side and buried their dead. Together, with heads uncovered, they held a service to memorialize their fallen comrades. Before departing for another frozen night in the trenches, a solitary voice began to sing Silent Night, in French. He was joined by another voice — this one singing in German — the words of a hymn known and beloved by all.
Together they contemplated “heavenly peace”.
By then, Silent Night was nearly 100 years old. That it was familiar and beloved by men on both sides of the line was no surprise. “Silent Night” was known around Europe and was sung in many languages for generations.
But for years historians have argued about its history. Books, magazine articles, news reports and Internet web sites have told tall tales of a grand history for Silent Night. But in reality, the story of Silent Night is as simple as the song itself.
In Oberndorf, Austria on Christmas Eve of 1818, Joseph Mohr, an assistant pastor, took the words of a poem he had written previously to Franz Gruber, a schoolteacher and talented musician. Joseph asked his friend to put the lyrics to music so that it could be performed that very night at Midnight Mass. The result was Silent Night, sung as a duet by Mohr and Gruber. They were accompanied by the Church choir and a guitar.
Like most precious things associated with Christmas, Silent Night was passed on from person to person as it touched lives. For Christmases to come, the simple hymn was performed first in families, then by traveling chorales, and eventually it was performed in capital cities before royalty. In the nearly 100 years it took to be known of the World War I generation, it had been performed in dozens of languages.
Today, historians are working to correct the tall tale aspects of the story of Silent Night. Regardless of what you read out there, Silent Night was not born of a broken organ incapable of playing something more grand at that Midnight Mass because mice had eaten through the bellows. There was no inspiration for the song born of a city fire in Salzburg.
“Silent Night” was the invention of an assistant pastor and his talented friend for a simple celebration of Christmas. And so it is used these days as well — a touching message of peace, a reminder of the best wishes for the season.