Welcome to The 12 Days of Christmas Songs: an attempt to uncover the forgotten history of some of the most memorable festive tunes. From December 14 through 25, we’ll be tackling one secular song and one holy song each day.
Updated at 10:20 a.m. on December 15, 2020.
It was December 1914. World War I had been raging for five months. Winter had settled in across the front. Pope Benedict XV suggested that, on Christmas, the troops engage in a temporary armistice.* No one thought such a thing could happen—this was war, after all. The Great War.
But in the week leading up to Christmas, German troops, longing for a bit of joy and home, began decorating the areas around their trenches. British soldiers began following suit. Step by tentative step, the pope’s suggestion became reality. And although the stories about what actually took place during the now-famous Christmas truce vary—some mention games of football; others mention tentative signs reading WE NO SHOOT YOU NO SHOOT; almost all mention relief and joy and the shaking of hands—most of them begin the same way: with German troops, from their side of No Man’s Land, singing a Christmas Carol. “Stille nacht … heilige nacht …”
The British knew the tune. They joined in: “All is calm … all is bright …”
“Silent Night,” a lullaby in the guise of a Christmas carol, has been bringing people together ever since. Originally written (in 1818, by the German composer Franz Xaver Gruber) as an upbeat dance, it’s the slower version—today’s contemplative and reverent ballad—that has claimed its place across cultures. “Silent Night” has been translated into 140 languages. It is the third-best-selling single of all time. In 2011, UNESCO declared it intangible cultural heritage.
That’s because “Silent Night,” more than most Christmas songs—more than most holiday songs—carries a quiet kind of universality. The tune is simple but not in a simplistic way, eloquent and elegant and evocative. It lends itself especially well, as perhaps those war-weary soldiers realized a century ago, to harmonizing. (“Silent Night” is often sung as a round with “Night of Silence,” to gorgeous effect.)
Its lyrics, too, are broadly relatable. They describe a common tableau: a new mother, a new child, the peaceful quietude of them first getting to know each other. “Silent Night” is the crèche, made flesh through music. It might be a religious song, but it is also one that describes that most essential and universal of things: the tenderness, and the promise, of a new life.
*This article previously misidentified the pope who suggested the Christmas armistice. It was Pope Benedict XV, not Pope Benedict VI or XVI.