17 December 2018

How one Christmas Carol
brought hope at a time of war

Waiting for ‘Silent Night’ … the Christmas Crib in the centre of Rathkeale (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

At the school carol service in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, next Friday [21 December 2018], we are going to sing a variety of carols and songs. Some are old hymns, some are new songs. Some many of us are familiar with, others are new and people are going to hear them for the first time.

What is your favourite Christmas carol?



One of the most popular Christmas carols but one we’re not going to sing next Friday, is ‘Silent Night,’ which was first heard 200 years ago on Christmas Eve 1818.

‘Silent Night’ was written in German 200 years ago by a young priest, Father Joseph Mohr (1792-1848), and a teacher, Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863), and it was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818 at Saint Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, a village in Austria.

Two families of folk singers from the German-speaking area in the Tyrol, the Strassers and the Rainers, included this song in their shows.

They sang it in concerts for the Austrian Emperor and the Tsar of Russia Tsar, Soon the song was well-known across Europe and America. and then 21 years after it was first performed, they sang it for the first time in the US, in New York in 1839.

But it was being sung in German, and it was translated into English for another 20 years, until 1859, when it was translated by an Episcopal priest, John Freeman Young (1820-1885) of Trinity Church, New York City. He later became Bishop of Florida.

Bishop Young’s translation into English only includes half of the original song, three of Father Mohr’s six verses.

But his English translation of Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!, under the title Silent Night, Holy Night, is now sung everywhere, in hundreds of languages.

Bishop Young died of pneumonia in New York on 15 November 1885.

Over the years, Father Mohr’s name was forgotten, and many people thought this must be the work of a famous composer, like Haydn or Mozart or Beethoven.

People forgot about Father Mohr and his friend the teacher, Franz Xaver Gruber, until 1995, about 20 years ago.

Bishop Young’s work in translating it was forgotten until over 60 years ago, in 1957.

Now they’re famous. UNESCO listed the song in 2011 … this one song is as culturally important throughout the world as Irish hurling.

But even though all these men were forgotten, 100 years after ‘Silent Night’ was written, everyone knew, and it was very popular in both English and German. So, on Christmas Eve 1914, as the guns fell silent on the eve of the first Christmas in World War, the German soldiers in the trenches in Belgian sang out the words of Stille Nacht, and the British and Irish troops responded by singing Bishop Young’s version of Silent Night.

The story is so famous that it is told in the song ‘A Silent Night Christmas 1915,’ written by Cormac MacConnell, and one of the songs Tommy Fleming included in his concert here in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, the Saturday before last Saturday [8 December 2018].

Watch this video clip to see how one song made a difference to war and peace 100 years ago:

Questions and discussion:

Why did this one Christmas carol make a difference?

Is Christmas message about peace

Silent Night, No 182, Church Hymnal (5th ed):

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,
shepherds quake at the sight;
glories stream from heaven afar,
heavenly hosts sing alleluia;
Christ the Saviour is born!
Christ the Saviour is born!

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

This reflection was prepared for a school assembly in Rathkeale on 17 December 2018

No comments: