Two hundred and one years ago, on Christmas Eve in the small Austrian town of Oberndorf, a musician strummed the first notes to a poem a young priest had written. It went:
All is calm, all is bright…
All was not calm and bright in Europe in 1818. The Napoleonic Wars had ravaged the continent for twelve long years, leaving behind great expanses of destruction, economic and social devastation. 1816 had been a “year without a summer,” cold and cropless. People had starved and frozen. And in 1818, cruel fires had swept across Salzburg.
Yet, in the silence of Oberndorf’s Saint Nicholas church, Joseph Mohr penned a few hopeful words, now immortal: heavenly peace.
The song played to a congregation on a silent night, then they all went home. Years later, an organ repairman took the score to another village. The villagers there learned the song and sang it in their Christmas market. Missionaries and migrants passed by. Artists and traders from everywhere. People picked it up and took it with them on their travels through Europe, Russia, on boats to England, the United States… It is now the most famous Christmas song in the world.
Silent Night exists in more than 300 languages and dialects. It has transcended the borders of nations, religions, cultures, and time. Its simple six stanzas were declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2011, but why this song? Why Silent Night?
The answer, perhaps, is in the simple but powerful combination of two deep and universal human wishes: for silence and peace.
There is so much that divides us, and division is so loud.
Voices rise, bombs are dropped, machine guns are fired in rounds. People shout slogans in public squares and police sirens respond. Speeches are so angry only they seem to make it over the walls.
But once upon a time, in 1914, when times were dark, angry, loud too, the trenches of World War I fell quiet for a night in December. On Christmas Eve, in Flanders, the German soldiers, the French, the Scots, put down their weapons and took off their helmets. They sang, each in their language, this song. All was calm. All was bright. And for a few hours the night really was silent. They all slept and, beautifully, no one died.
Millions of people would die in that war’s following years. Millions more have died in other wars throughout the decades since. But however angry or scared one is, however hurt, it is hard to start shouting and hating immediately after this hymn. It is short and simple, its words and melody are easy to remember. Anyone can sing it in any language. We hope, this Christmas, millions will.
We hope, we wish every reader a pause in which there is silence and peace, just after that last note, just before the congregation around them stands up to leave.
The song does not offer comfort, answers, or guidance. It is a wish. A dream of a silent night, and sleep in heavenly peace. Who knows, perhaps this year it will last till morning. We hope it does.
We wish you and your families, a Merry Christmas and all of the seasonal celebrations that bring peace, silence, and joy.
N.B. Dear friend, Womanscape will be silent for the rest of December. We want to take this time to reflect and be with our loved ones. We wish you the same and all that is good. We will be back in January.
All of us at WomanScape