On Christmas Eve, 1952, President Harry S. Truman said of Christmas, "Year after year it brings peace and tranquility to troubled hearts in a troubled world. And tonight the world seems hushed, as we turn to the old, old story of how 'God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life'."
Indeed there is a hushed silence that settles upon the world each year on the eve of the Holy day of Christmas.
More than 2 billion Christians embrace it. Most people are at least aware of it.
After the frenzy that's gone on before this night, as evening comes, a Christmas Eve hush starts to descend---an air of stillness grows around us.
It was at this hushed moment that the most sung Christmas carol of all time was written.
And it was in the hushed moments of Christmas Eve that a World War ceased for a few hours.
Silent Night is the most sung Christmas carol in history.
Here's the story behind the carol as told by members of the church where the carol was first sung:
In 1818, a roving band of actors was performing in towns throughout the Austrian Alps. On December 23 they arrived at Oberndorf, a village near Salzburg where they were to re-enact the story of Christ's birth in the small Church of St. Nicholas.
Unfortunately, the St. Nicholas' church organ wasn't working and would not be repaired before Christmas. (Note: some versions of the story point to mice as the problem; others say rust was the culprit) Because the church organ was out of commission, the actors presented their Christmas drama in a private home. That Christmas presentation of the events in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke put assistant pastor Josef Mohr in a meditative mood. Instead of walking straight to his house that night, Mohr took a longer way home. The longer path took him up over a hill overlooking the village.
From that hilltop, Mohr looked down on the peaceful snow-covered village. Reveling in majestic silence of the wintry night, Mohr gazed down at the glowing Christmas-card like scene. His thoughts about the Christmas play he had just seen made him remember a poem he had written a couple of years before. That poem was about the night when angels announced the birth of the long-awaited Messiah to shepherds on a hillside.
Mohr decided those words might make a good carol for his congregation the following evening at their Christmas eve service. The one problem was that he didn't have any music to which that poem could be sung. So, the next day Mohr went to see the church organist, Franz Xaver Gruber. Gruber only had a few hours to come up with a melody which could be sung with a guitar. However, by that evening, Gruber had managed to compose a musical setting for the poem. It no longer mattered to Mohr and Gruber that their church organ was inoperable. They now had a Christmas carol that could be sung without that organ.
On Christmas Eve, the little Oberndorf congregation heard Gruber and Mohr sing their new composition to the accompaniment of Gruber's guitar.
Weeks later, well-known organ builder Karl Mauracher arrived in Oberndorf to fix the organ in St. Nicholas church. When Mauracher finished, he stepped back to let Gruber test the instrument. When Gruber sat down, his fingers began playing the simple melody he had written for Mohr's Christmas poem. Deeply impressed, Mauracher took copies of the music and words of "Silent Night" back to his own Alpine village, Kapfing. There, two well-known families of singers — the Rainers and the Strassers — heard it. Captivated by "Silent Night," both groups put the new song into their Christmas season repertoire.
The Strasser sisters spread the carol across northern Europe. In 1834, they performed "Silent Night" for King Frederick William IV of Prussia, and he then ordered his cathedral choir to sing it every Christmas eve.
Twenty years after "Silent Night" was written, the Rainers brought the song to the United States, singing it (in German) at the Alexander Hamilton Monument located outside New York City's Trinity Church.
In 1863, nearly fifty years after being first sung in German, "Silent Night" was translated into English (by either Jane Campbell or John Young). Eight years later, that English version made its way into print in Charles Hutchins' Sunday School Hymnal. Today the words of "Silent Night" are sung in more than 300 different languages around the world.
The Christmas Carol Silent Night was instrumental in causing men from both the German and British Army to silence their guns and ease out of their fox holes and trenches on Christmas Eve in 1914.
In a well documented event, here is a portion of an eye witness account by Charles Brewer, a 19 year old British lieutenant:
Charles Brewer never expected to be spending Christmas Eve nearly knee-deep in the mud of northern France. Stationed on the front lines, the 19-year-old British lieutenant with the Bedfordshire Regiment of the 2nd Battalion shivered in a trench with his fellow soldiers. After Great Britain entered World War I in August 1914, many of them had expected that they would make quick work of the enemy and be home in time for Christmas. Nearly five months and 1 million lives later, however, the Great War had bogged down in intractable trench warfare with no end in sight.
Although disappointed to be far from home on Christmas Eve, Brewer at least took solace in the fact that the perpetual rain, which made moving through the trenches as much of a slog as the war itself, had finally abated on the moonlit night. All was jarringly quiet on the Western Front when a British sentry suddenly spied a glistening light on the German parapet, less than 100 yards away. Warned that it might be a trap, Brewer slowly raised his head over the soaked sandbags protecting his position and through the maze of barbed wire saw a sparkling Christmas tree. As the lieutenant gazed down the line of the German trenches, a whole string of small conifers glimmered like beads on a necklace.
Brewer then noticed the rising of a faint sound that he had never before heard on the battlefield—a Christmas carol. The German words to “Stille Nacht” were not familiar, but the tune—“Silent Night”—certainly was. When the German soldiers finished singing, their foes broke out in cheers. Used to returning fire, the British now replied in song with the English version of the carol.
This account and many others confirm that throughout Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the opposing soldiers shared food, sang and even played a little soccer, before returning to their fox holes and trenches to resume the war.
May the Spirit of Christ and His Peace fill your heart today as we prepare to celebrate Christmas.