The Christmas truce: a silent night without language barriers

It was Confucius who said that “When music and courtesy are better understood and appreciated, there will be no war.” Letrário agrees.

In this article, we will tell you the origin story of a popular Christmas song: Silent Night. We will also tell you a story about a Christmas night in which peace, against all odds, was present. A night in which people sang Silent Night! Silent Night! Enemy soldiers who spoke different languages put their conflicts and language barriers aside and sang together, in unison.

The origin story of the song that broke barriers

The song Silent Night, Stille Nacht in German, was written in 1816 by an Austrian assistant priest of the Oberndorf parish, Joseph Mohr. It was later composed by the organist of the very same parish, Franz Xaver Gruber. However, when a river flood damaged the church organ during a ceremony on Christmas Eve, in 1818, Gruber had to arrange the melody for two voices and guitar.

The magical song, peaceful and holy, spread quickly and was included in the shows of itinerant families, attended by kings Francis I of Austria and Alexander I of Russia. 

The manuscript of the song was lost and Mohr’s contribution was eventually forgotten. Even the identity of the composer, although known, was often confused with that of Mozart or Beethoven, to whom the melody was often attributed. That until 1955, when another manuscript of the song was found, written by Mohr, where the melody was also attributed to Gruber. 

Translation of the song that broke language barriers

The English version, the most popular one nowadays, was attributed to Father John Freeman Young, who based his translation on only three of Mohr’s original six verses.

The Portuguese version, which presents the most differences in relation to the German original, is attributed to Franciscan friar Pedro Sinzig, born in Austria, but ordained in Brazil.

Take a look at the different versions of this popular song, considered an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO:

German

English

Portuguese

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar1,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Halleluja,
Tönt es laut von fern und nah:
Christ, der Retter ist da!
Christ, der Retter ist da!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb’ aus deinem göttlichen Mund2,
Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund’.
Christ, in deiner Geburt!
Christ, in deiner Geburt!

1. Lovely boy with curly hair

2. O how love laughs from your divine mouth

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

Noite feliz! Noite feliz!
O Senhor, Deus de amor,
pobrezinho nasceu em Belém.
Eis, na lapa, Jesus, nosso bem!
Dorme em paz, ó Jesus!
Dorme em paz, ó Jesus!

Noite feliz! Noite feliz!
Eis que, no ar, vêm cantar
aos pastores os anjos dos céus,
anunciando a chegada de Deus,
de Jesus Salvador!
de Jesus Salvador!

Noite feliz! Noite feliz!
Ó, Jesus, Deus da luz,
quão afável é o teu coração
que quiseste nascer nosso irmão
e a nós todos salvar!
e a nós todos salvar!

The First World War and the momentary truce on a Christmas Eve that broke language barriers

The Christmas truce of 1914 is often remembered as a symbolic moment of peace during a war marked by extreme violence. It happened on the Western Front with a large number of British, German and French soldiers, who needed to repair their trenches and bury the dead. 

Initially fearful, for stepping on no man’s land (unoccupied territory, out of fear or uncertainty), soldiers from both sides ended up meeting, sharing food, drinks, tobacco, sweets and souvenirs, and even taking pictures and playing football in some parts of the Front. 

In the BBC educational series titled I Was There: The Great War Interviews, in which we can watch interviews filmed in the 1960s, Henry Williamson, who was only 17 when he joined the British Territorial Army, tells us what happened during the Christmas truce.

Williamson and his brigade had been tasked with knocking down a few posts into the frozen soil, in the so-called no man’s-land, just 50 metres away from the Germans. Naturally, they were very anxious and tried not to make any noise with their boots on the frozen soil. But they expected to hear gunshots any moment. To everyone’s surprise, none of this ever happened. Within two hours, they were relaxing, laughing and talking in German territory. 

Williamson recalls a conversation with a German soldier, which made him understand that the feelings triggered by the war were the same everywhere. The truth is that everyone fought for their country and for freedom, and everyone felt they had God on their side. To avoid an argument between the troops, the German soldier said: “English comrade, do not let us quarrel on Christmas Day.”

Around 11 p.m., the English soldiers saw the Germans put up a Christmas tree in the trenches, and sing Silent Night, which they recognised immediately. They joined them and sang it in their own language, breaking all existing language barriers. 

The reaction of senior officers to the truce was somewhat contradictory. Some prohibited the involvement of soldiers, others took the opportunity to carry out maintenance and bury the dead. However, they all wanted the truce to end, for they feared that fraternisation would affect the fighting spirit. 

Unfortunately, the truce did not become a tradition. The following year, there were few ceasefires, and by 1916, the war had become too violent for momentary friendships…

Have you found out more about this important historical event? Share your opinion with Letrário and tell us what your favorite version of this Christmas carol is!

If you need to break down language barriers, contact us. We will be happy to help you.