On behalf of the members of the URG Chaplaincy, I wish the members of the Rio Family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! To the Jewish members of the Rio Family, I offer greetings for a Happy Chanukah!
2018 is not only the centennial anniversary of the end of World War One, it is also the bicentennial for my mother and grandmother’s favorite Christmas hymn-Silent Night. The First World War and the carol are connected, a point which I will expand on later in this statement. First, a little background about Silent Night.
The popular story about the origins of this song is that Joseph Mohr, the village priest at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria discovered that mice had ruined the bellows of the church’s organ. In urgent need of a song for Christmas Eve Mass, he hurried to the home of Franz Gruber, the organist at St. Nicholas, carrying with him the words to a poem he had written two years earlier in 1816. He hoped that Gruber could create music to accompany the lyrics on guitar. Gruber accomplished the task in time and the congregation heard the song composed in haste that evening. Though popular, this origin story is unsupported by facts. Allow me to place some facts about this song into your mental Christmas stockings.
In 1816, Father Joseph Mohr served the congregation in Mariapfarr, Austria. It is stated that he was inspired to write a poem due to a walk he took from his grandfather’s house to the church. He entitled his six-stanza poem “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” In 1817, Mohr was transferred to St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf (a replica of this chapel stands today in Frankenmuth, Michigan). Whatever the true circumstances that prompted the need for the song, Franz Gruber composed music for the lyrics in 1818. Gruber credits Karl Mauracher, an organ repairman from the Ziller Valley, with presenting the tune to the Strasser Family, a group of traveling folk singers. The song was first published in 1833. Once Prussian King William IV heard this carol, he ordered it performed by the Prussian National Cathedral Choir. Due to royal attention, the song left the hills of Austria and spread throughout Eastern Europe and then to Great Britain.
Joseph Mohr was born in Salzburg, Austria, yet he is not the only musical connection to that city. Mozart was also a native of Salzburg as was Maria Von Trapp, whose life was dramatized in the film “The Sound of Music”. She was a descendant of the Rainer Family, a group of traveling folk singers.
In 1839, the Rainer Family was on tour in the United States. One of their performances was before the congregation of Trinity Church in New York City and “Silent Night” was one of the songs they sang that evening. Twenty years later, John Freeman Young, the priest at that church, translated the lyrics from German to English and gave America the version of the song commonly sung during the Christmas season. The first known recording of the carol was by the Haydn Quartet in 1905 (available on YouTube). The song is available in 140 languages. Various recording artists such as Bing Crosby, Mariah Carey, David Phelps and the Von Trapp Family Singers have all released a version of this song. By 1960, it was recognized as the most recorded song in human history. In 2011, UNESCO declared the song an intangible cultural heritage.
The connection of the carol and the First World War involves a 1914 incident known as the “Christmas Truce”, an event dramatized in the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel, as well as a 1996 Collin Raye music video and a 2014 advertisement from Sainsbury (all three are available on YouTube). On that December evening, the air surrounding the no man’s land between opposing trenches was filled, not with the hellacious fumes of gas weapons, or the cries of the wounded or dying, but with the voices of men, singing in German and English, a song about a silent, holy night long ago. From that unity in song came a truce. Thus, for a few days, on one portion of a European battlefield, men of war put aside their weapons to commemorate the birth of the Prince of Peace.
This holiday season; let us not forget our gratitude to those wearing the uniform of our nation’s armed services, away from their families, serving at a distant post in our country or on a foreign shore as well as those members of law enforcement and emergency service workers who are on duty instead of with their families on Christmas morning.
Though you may hope to have a happy Christmas, for some, the season will not be merry. Let us not forget the homeless, the hungry, those in grief, the addicted, the abused, the trafficked, the poor, the lonely, the depressed, the infirmed, the institutionalized and those who have financial struggles. These are but a dozen examples from the large catalogue of miseries that humans can suffer on Earth. Into such a world came Emmanuel, a term used in both the Old and New Testaments, which has been translated as “God with us”. How much easier it is for people to relate to an Emmanuel born in a simple manger instead of a splendid mansion, a humble birth that allows His message to reach not a mere few but a multitude of many. Well before this time next year, may these earlier mentioned people and groups know what it is like, to quote the carol, to “Sleep in Heavenly peace”.
William E. Plants
URG Chaplaincy Coordinator