Seven Songs for Christmas: Silent Night

Caption: The Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf, on the site where the song was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818.

Bing Crosby?s rendition of Irving Berlin?s White Christmas is the biggest-selling single of all time. The third-best-selling is another Crosby Christmas record: this time, a song so well-loved, in so many languages, that it is instantly recognisable to anyone in what used to be called Christendom in a perhaps wiser age. A song so heart-stoppingly beautiful in its longing for peace on earth that it is even widely credited with halting ? temporarily at least ? one of the most devastating wars in human history.

No doubt all of this would be a surprise to a humble Austrian village priest, who, one Christmas Eve in the early 19th century, visited his friend, a musician-schoolmaster in his new parish, and asked him to compose a melody for a Christmas carol he had written. Even had this priest lived to see his song become one of the biggest-selling records of all time, he probably would have given all his royalties away.

Father Joseph Mohr was born in poverty and died penniless. Heeding Jesus? warning against earthly treasures, Father Joseph donated all his income to the care of the elderly and the education of children in his parish in the tiny Alpine village where he died and is buried next to the school dedicated to his name. Mohr was described as ?a reliable friend of mankind, toward the poor, a gentle, helping father?.

It seems to be a common thread that the best Christmas songs are born from adversity, and Silent Night is no different. In the tumult of the recently-concluded Napoleonic Wars, the thousand-year Holy Roman Empire was dissolved, and the borders of Europe were redrawn. The village of Oberndorf, Mohr?s new parish, was plunged into depression when the formerly independent Principality of Salzburg was subjugated and divided.

Having witnessed the devastation of war and its aftermath in central Europe, it?s small wonder, then, that Mohr?s lyrics, written just the year after Napoleon?s defeat, express such a poignant longing for comfort, peace, and ?here at last, healing light?.

Two years later, Mohr asked his friend Franz Gruber to set his words to music, for that evening?s Midnight Mass. Intriguingly, Mohr specifically asked Gruber to write the music for guitar, rather than the usual organ. Despite long-standing legend, there is nothing to suggest that the church organ wasn?t actually working at the time. It appears that Mohr simply loved guitar music.

Whether or not the organ was functioning properly, it?s fortunate for us all that there was an organ builder who serviced the town?s instrument was at hand. Karl Mauracher was the first of untold numbers who fell in love with the song and took a copy home with him. From there, it was picked up by travelling folk singers, from where it reached not only the ears of the emperors of Austria and Russia but travelled across the Atlantic for its first performance in New York in 1839.

Nearly one hundred years after its composition, Silent Night is widely credited with playing a pivotal role in the famous Christmas Truce of 1914.

On that first Christmas Eve of the War, German troops near Ypres decorated their trenches with candles and Christmas trees and began singing carols. British troops across the narrow strip of No Man?s Land joined in, and the unofficial truce began. Of course, it?s not known for sure which songs specifically spurred the truce (one soldier identified O come all ye faithful), but Silent Night is most often featured in depictions of the event and provides the title for a history of the event. It?s certainly not difficult to imagine this almost-universally known Christmas carol, sung in the sister language to English, would spur such instant fellow-feeling among the troops.

Whatever the immediate cause, what followed briefly fulfilled Mohr?s century-past wish that ?from earthly woes we would be freed?. Soldiers from the opposing armies temporarily reached out across the Christmas snows and joined in camaraderie, gift-giving, and impromptu soccer matches.

The event has been featured in popular culture many times: one of the earliest movie depictions, in Richard Attenborough?s Oh! What a lovely war!, is particularly moving, although as historically inaccurate as most of the film. It shows the truce quickly interrupted by shelling, whereas the truth was that it lasted well into Christmas day (in some places until the New Year), and was generally ended on prearranged (if informal) terms.

As many times as the truce has been depicted, there are infinitely more versions of the song to choose from. The song is broadcast via webcam from the chapel at Oberndorf, every Christmas Eve. But, until then, perhaps it?s best to hear it as close to possible as it might have sounded on that snowy evening in the Alps in 1818.

As the voices of the Dresden choir soar like a heavenly host, it really does seem as if ?sleeps the world in peace tonight?.