“My father played the melodeon
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music”
(‘A Christmas Childhood’, Patrick Kavanagh)
Christmas carols have the power to trigger memories buried in the archives of our past. The simplest of carols can stir something deep within. I’ve seen an elderly woman in a coma in a nursing home momentarily re-awaken and join us in song, noticed hardened men drawn to a space they thought they had left behind, viewed children transported on a musical odyssey back to the manger in Bethlehem, watched a homeless woman cradle the infant child drawing strength from within even in the bleak mid-winter.
Christmas time has its own magical allure. The lights, the gifts, the music, the myriad of sporting spectacles beamed live to our sitting rooms, the gatherings among family and friends, the scent of the turkey roasting in the oven, the frenzied shopping, the carnival atmosphere in town; all combine to create something wonderfully festive that eases us almost unknowingly through the dreariness of the Irish winter.
Beneath the layers of tinsel and chimes, lies the age-old story that gives meaning to it all. The star still shines, oft’ hidden and unnoticed, mystical, enduring, casting its unique aura across the universe, its glow only observable to the curious eye. The glimmering light draws us back to source, to where it all began.
Christmas without ‘Silent Night’ would feel incomplete. The poignant lilt of the harmonies woven through the haunting simplicity of the melody carries us on the deepest of journeys to a space within. It lingers long after the last note is sung. We awaken to the aching realisation that we are not alone… that our story is part of something timeless. In the moment, we are nudged into the mystery of it all.
The origin of ‘Silent Night’ is worth remembering. In 1818, a roving band of actors was performing in towns throughout the Austrian Alps. On December 23rd, 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. Given that the church organ was out of commission and would not be repaired before Christmas, the actors decided to present their version of the Christmas story in a private home.
One of audience, assistant pastor Josef Mohr, was inspired to reflect anew on the meaning of Christmas. Instead of walking straight to his house that night, Mohr took a longer way home. His fateful Camino took him up over a hill overlooking the village. He stopped to survey the peaceful, snow-drenched citadel of light below. Reveling in the majestic silence of the wintry night, Mohr gazed down at the glowing Christmas card-like scene. Time past and present froze in creative fusion. He intuitively adapted a poem he had written years previously to the play he had just seen.
Mohr enlisted the help of his friend, church organist Franz Xaver Gruber, to compose a musical setting for the poem that could sound well even without the church organ. Within hours they both sung ‘Stille Nacht’ at their Christmas Eve service before the small congregation in Oberndorf with the accompaniment of a guitar. It was beautifully understated, magical.
Christmas 1914 on the battlefields of Messines brings us face to face with the power of this simple carol. Picture the scene. Young men and boys sunk in the blemished mud of Flemish and French trenches, ears reverberating to the terrifying sounds of shells exploding before them with a deafening defiance – scarcely imaginable to spectators from afar. Germans on one side; the French, British and Irish on the other. Between them, ‘no man’s land’ littered with the spoils of war, a sordid premonition of the fate in store for up to 13,000 soldiers a day.
Yet, amidst the chaos, hope simmered fleetingly on the horizon. The German soldiers were sent Christmas trees from home and placed them above their trenches, numbing the oppressive doom that enveloped them. A strange confluence of dark and light rose from the shadowy mire. The luminous trail extended for miles, a seamless halo from afar that transfigured the wretched landscape. The soldiers were moved. They remembered their loved ones back home.
They momentarily forgot where they were. And then the German tenor sang ‘Stille Nacht’. Soldiers from both sides fearlessly opted to leave the relative sanctuary of the trenches and embraced their ‘foe’ as their own. Stories were told, cigarettes smoked, brandy consumed, even a football match was played. Once hostile voices merged as one in common humanity.
A young British soldier, Albert Moren, near La Chapelle D’Armentieres, France, recalled: “It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere; and… there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and then there were those lights – I don’t know what they were. And then they sang ‘Stille Nacht’ – ‘Silent Night’. I shall never forget it. It was one of the highlights of my life.”
Against the bleakest of backdrops, a spark was lit and the shroud lifted. Humanity had become participants in the nativity story 1914 years on revealing the face of the infant Jesus to the world. Their song lingers on in the stillness of a darkened night. Hidden in the silhouette, their hushed murmurings can still be heard. The men of 1914 did not just remember the first Christmas; they lived out its meaning.
British historian, Piers Brendon, described the miracle of the Christmas Truce as “the most extraordinary celebration of Christmas since those notable goings-on in Bethlehem – a moment of humanity in the midst of carnage.”
I was privileged to travel to Messines in December 2014 with ‘The Island of Ireland Peace Choir’ to pay homage in song to the young men of the Christmas Truce on the 100th anniversary. It was deeply humbling to see the graves of two Irishmen side by side in one of the tiny cemeteries scattered across the furrowed fields. On one headstone: 24th of December 1914, Private Delaney; on the other, 29th of December 1914, Private Murphy. In between… the Christmas Truce. We remembered in silence and in song.
One person made a deep impression on all of us privileged to meet her. Marie -Therese’s home overlooks the site of the Christmas Truce and for the previous 80 plus years of her life has welcomed visitors with tea and cakes as a token of her appreciation of the journeys they had made. She knew the significance of all that had happened on this hallowed land not too many years before she was born and understood the need to remember. Marie-Therese beamed with delight when we sang ‘Danny Boy’ for her on a pathway alongside her home. Her smile touched us all. She radiated warmth of a precious kind. Their spirit lives on through her.
At the end of our concert that evening, we chose to give our Waterford Crystal vase to Marie-Therese, and not to the local dignitaries, much to the delight of almost everyone in the audience. We could see in her beautiful simplicity, in her resilient smile, in her resolute kindness proof of the power of human goodness to triumph even in those very situations that threaten its existence. Maybe, therein lies the message of Christmas.
The “Island of Ireland Peace Choir” recently performed in St. Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin for “The Peter McVerry Trust”. We’ve attached a short, unpolished recording of ‘Stille Nacht’ from the evening. Through our music, Elaine and I would like to wish you all a peaceful and happy Christmas and everything you hope for in 2018.
“And the light shining from that star will show you who you are
And His light, shining with its might, will lead you through your darkest night.”
(‘The Star’, Kathy Mattea)
Dr. Phil Brennan is Founder and Musical Director of the “Island of Ireland Peace Choir”. Phil and Elaine invite you to share in one of their specially tailored Caminos through Waterford County during 2018. The Waterford Camino experience blends walks/cycles, spiritual reflection and music.
A video of the “Island of Ireland Peace Choir” performing in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, can be found by CLICKING THE VIDEO LINK BELOW.
Thank you to Brendan Butler and Glenn Alexander for their input.