Heavenly Peace

The carol was born out of necessity:  The organ in a small Austrian church broke down just before Christmas Eve Mass.  Father Joseph Kessler and choir director Franz Gruber hurriedly composed a hymn as part of an alternate celebration.  It was 1818 when the gentle lullaby like carol was first heard to guitar accompaniment.

Neither man thought that their songs would be heard beyond the doors of the church, but Silent Night, Holy Night (Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!) remains one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time.  The last lines of the first verse are especially poignant, as they not only describe the slumber of the Holy child, but became a call for peace in the madness of two world wars, providing common ground between two enemies.

You might have heard the story of the Christmas Truce of World War I.  The version I heard told of a brave soldier standing from the trenches and singing the hymn in the midst of fierce gunfire on Christmas Eve.  As his singing rose above the din of gunshots, both his fellow soldiers and the enemy slowly ceased fire and joined in.  Both sides enjoyed a moment of peace before the fighting resumed.  Many variations abound, but historian Stanley Weintraub researched and wrote a definitive book on the Truce titled Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce.  In 1914, during the first December of the First World War, German soldiers were determined to celebrate Christmas, despite conditions in the trenches and the constant threat of death by enemy fire.  They raised Weihnachtsbaums – Christmas trees – and sang carols.  Some even dared to cross over enemy lines and extend a hand of friendship to English soldiers and their allies in the spirit of the season.  Thus, informal truces began along the Western Front:  Guns were silenced, gifts and food were exchanged, and friendships were made.  Silent Night, by now known around the world, was often sung or played on instruments, easing the tension of war and allowing soldiers to reflect on something other than the foul conditions of trench warfare.

Silent Night figures prominently in the Georgia made film My Christmas Soldier.  Some Georgia history figures into the plot as well:  According to historian and screenwriter Mauriel Joslyn, 11,000 German POWs were held in 40 prison camps across Georgia between 1942 and 1947.  On Christmas Eve in 1943, a young boy and his sister, waiting at a small train station for their father, hear the adults’ paranoid whispers about a box car filled with German POWs on their way to a prison camp.  Despite the fear and hatred fueled by the talk, the children seek out and make contact with one of the German soldiers.  They exchange food and gifts, like the soldiers of WWI.  Moved by the children’s kindness, the POWs sing Silent Night in their native tongue.  The Americans adults hear and recognize the melody, and echo the hymn in English.  As a result, the attitudes of the Americans and the German POWs towards each other are changed.  Though My Christmas Soldier is fictitious, its story is inspired by actual events that occurred throughout Georgia during WWII.  “When you think someone is an enemy,” Joslyn says in an interview on the My Christmas Soldier DVD, “When you think someone is dangerous and there’s a prejudice involved, sometimes, when you really get on common ground, your attitude changes.” 

Kessler and Gruber wrote Silent Night to overcome a sudden predicament; little did they know, they also created that common ground for peoples in two global conflicts.  On that common ground, soldiers on the Western Front who were forced back to fighting after the Christmas truce fired their volleys harmlessly over the heads of their new friends; German POWs in Georgia enjoyed amity – not just humane treatment – during their imprisonment, which motivated many of them to remain in Georgia after the war.  The lullaby carol inspired at least temporary peace in these instances, and most importantly, change in the hearts of enemies.  Silent Night will surely last to inspire more peace and change, through its own lyrics and through these moments in history.

Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce is available at CCLS.  Ask a Staff member for assistance.

My Christmas Soldier is available on DVD.  Check the website for more information.

Read my article on My Christmas Soldier at CinemAtl.com

Find more history on the carol Silent Night! Holy Night! and its composers at the Silent Night Museum.

Published in: on December 20, 2007 at 9:29 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Hello, this is Aaron Roos. This is a really great educational page and it really struck me that these people could be so nice while killing each other at the same time. 🙂

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