This Christmas assembly explores the story of the carol Silent Night, and also its power to bring people together. There are various stories and legends about how the carol came to be written; this assembly tells only what’s known as fact
You’ll need the words, and possibly the sheet music to, Silent Night. You can sing it before the assembly begins, and again afterwards. If you can do it with a simple guitar accompaniment, so much the better.
Silent Night is one of the best loved and best known of all the Christmas carols. It’s a simple, quiet tune, and the words are peaceful and calm. A lot of you might know that it was originally written in German. Does anyone know the German words?
Yes, it begins ’Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles schläft, einsam wacht….’
It’s a carol that’s known all over the world. It’s been translated into at least three hundred languages and dialects. But do you know the story of how it came to be written?
The story of Silent Night
The very first time this lovely carol was sung was on Christmas Eve 1818 in the Church of St Nicholas in the small Austrian town of Oberndorf, near Salzburg.
It was a brand new carol, with music by Franz Xaver Gruber, who was the head of the local school and was also the organist in the church. The words were written by a priest called Father Josef Mohr. It seems that Father Mohr had written the poem a year or two earlier, but for some reason in that particular year he’d remembered it, looked it out, and brought it to Franz Gruber to write some music for it.
Franz Gruber was the organist, but he didn’t play the organ for this first performance of Silent Night – he played the guitar, and it was sung by a small group. Many years later, the story was that the reason Gruber hadn’t played the guitar was because the organ was broken, but there really isn’t any evidence to support that theory. It may have happened, but it’s equally possible that Gruber just chose to play it on the guitar. And when you think about people singing this carol to a simple guitar accompaniment, with the congregation joining in, you can imagine how lovely that would sound. It didn’t really need the organ then, and doesn’t need a complicated arrangement now – it’s beauty is in its simplicity.
The carol’s instant appeal meant that it quickly spread from person to person, place to place, all the way across Austria. One of the many singing families in Austria – the Strasser Sisters – began to perform it, and continued to make it popular in neighbouring countries, too. Another singing family, the Rainers, took the carol to the United States, and sang it to a crowd of people outside the Trinity Church in New York.
Then, in 1863, it was translated at last into English, and published in an American Sunday school hymn book. It then made its way to Britain, and into all our hearts, where it will live for ever as a memorial to those two men, Franz Xaver Gruber and Josef Mohr; singing to a guitar in the quietness of a candlelit village church in Austria on Christmas Eve.
Because Silent Night has been so popular across Europe, and especially in Britain and Germany, it has on occasion brought enemies together for a short while. In 1914, in the trenches of the first world war on Christmas Eve, soldiers from both sides joined in singing it.
A soldier from the second world war, Alan Potter, has the following memory from when he was held prisoner in a German camp in Austria in 1944, when the prisoners were having their own Christmas concert.
’We happened to be singing Silent Night – this to me is quite dramatic – somebody called out: “Stop! Listen”. So we all stopped and we listened and we heard from the German’s barracks they too were singing Silent Night. That was an incredible thing for us – it shows that – scratch the skin of any nationality, there’s a human being under that skin that’s the same, in a sense, to anybody else. That was a very human sort of a moment I thought.’
The spirit of Chrismas, the prayer for peace on earth, is powerful and can bring wars to a halt at least for a short time, reminding us that we are all God’s children, put together on the earth to do the best we can for each other. Only selfishness and thoughtlessness keep us apart.
Lord, as we approach Christmas, the time of families and being together, we pray for those who will not be home for Christmas. For all service men and women, for all aid workers, and for all those nearer home whose work will keep them busy and away from their families.
Let’s remember Alan Potter’s thought that we are all the same, underneath the skin.
Alan Potter’s story is one of a number under “Christmas at War” on the Imperial War Museum website
On Christmas Eve you can see and hear Stille Nacht sung on the square at Oberndorf, via the Stille Nacht Webcam. Or you can look now for more information about Silent Night.
This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2008
About the author: Gerald Haigh