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Tag Archives: “Silent Night

Silent Guns on Christmas Eve

On Dec. 25, 1914, five months into World War I, British and German troops on the Western Front stopped fighting in a spontaneous ceasefire; soldiers from opposing nations put their weapons aside to enjoy carols.

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The crushing German advance had been checked by the allies before it could reach Paris. The opposing armies stared at each other from a line of hastily built defensive trenches that began at the edge of the English Channel and continued to the border of Switzerland. Barbed wire and parapets defended the trenches and between them stretched a “No-Mans-Land” that in some areas was no more than 30 yards wide.

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Life in the trenches was abominable. Continuous sniping, machine gun fire, and artillery shelling took a deadly toll. The misery was heightened by the ravages of Nature, including rain, snow and cold. Many of the trenches, especially those in the low-lying British sector to the west, were continually flooded, exposing the troops to frost bite and “trench foot.”

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.

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.

German soldiers starting singing “Silent Night.”

When it ended,” eighteen-year-old Alfred Anderson, a Scottish soldier recalled,”there was a short time of silence. Then one of ours began singing `The First Noel.’ Halfway through, it was as if our entire regiment was singing.” When the British followed with “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful,” German soldiers joined in with harmony of the Latin version,”Adeste Fideles.

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The Germans seem to have made that first move. During the evening of December 24, they delivered a chocolate cake to the British line accompanied by a note that proposed a cease fire so that the Germans could have a concert. The British accepted the proposal and offered some tobacco as their present to the Germans. Enemy soldiers shouted to one another from the trenches, joined in singing songs and soon met one another in the middle of no-mans-land to talk, exchange gifts and in some areas to take part in impromptu soccer matches.

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The truces ended that night or the following morning.

A British captain wrote of how the Royal Welch Fusiliers resumed the war: At 8.30, I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with ‘Merry Christmas’ on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He [the Germans] put up a sheet with ‘Thank you’ on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.

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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.


“Silent Night, Holy Night”

On Christmas Eve, 1818, the carol “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht” was heard for the first time in a village church in Oberndorf, Austria. As the fame of this carol grew, its whereabouts were slowly forgotten. Myths and fanciful tales gathered around its origins. Some even said that mice had eaten the bellows of the organ, so it could not be played. Mice or not, the organ was broken. Only a guitar was available.

Silent Night Chapel

Whatever the truth, an assistant pastor, Father Joseph Mohr, and teacher, Franz Gruber, composed this famous hymn. It was sung at the Midnight Mass in St. Nicholas Church. Father Mohr played the guitar, and the choir repeated the last two lines. (That guitar can still be seen at Hallein’s Franz Gruber Museum.)

Reverend Joseph Mohr was a young priest in Mariapfarr, Austria, and he wrote the original six stanzas of this carol.  His grandfather lived nearby, and it is easy to imagine that he could have come up with the words while walking through the countryside on a visit to his elderly relative. The fact is, we have no idea if any particular event inspired Joseph Mohr to pen his poetic version of the birth of the Christ child. The world is fortunate, however, that he didn’t leave it behind when he was transferred to Oberndorf the following year (1817).

Franz Gruber was a musician/schoolteecher. On December 24, 1818, Mohr journeyed to his home, which was an apartment over the schoolhouse in nearby Arnsdorf. He showed his friend the poem and asked him to add a melody and guitar accompaniment so that it could be sung at Midnight Mass.

It became the favorite of King Frederick William IV of Prussia.

The words flowed from the imagination of a modest curate. The music was composed by a musician who was not known outside his village. Though  no celebrity sang at its world premiere, it has been translated into languages all over the world. Its powerful message of heavenly peace has crossed all borders and language barriers, conquering the hearts of people everywhere. The first few notes are immediately recognized by all, and a sense of peace hovers over those singing.

This simple song rings with truth.