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Silent Night: the Story of a Favourite Christmas Carol

2018 marks 200 years since ‘Silent night’ was written

by Tim Dowley

Suitable for Whole School (Pri)

Aims

To consider the origins of the Christmas carol ‘Silent night’ and why it is still popular today.

Preparation and materials

Assembly

  1. Ask the children to name their favourite Christmas songs or Christmas carols. If possible, ask a few children to join in with singing them.

    Point out that at Christmastime, Christmas music is heard in many places: in the shops, on the television, on the radio and so on.

  2. Ask if any of the children have heard of the Christmas carol ‘Silent night’.

    Play ‘Silent night’.

    Ask the children whether they like the carol and what they like about it.

    Listen to a range of responses.

  3. Show the lyrics for ‘Silent night’.

    If possible, sing the first verse together.

  4. Ask the children if they think the carol was originally written in English.

    Listen to a range of responses.

  5. Explain that ‘Silent night’ was originally written in German. Ask the children whether they think that the carol was written in Germany.

    Point out that ‘Silent night’ was actually written in Austria exactly 200 years ago this Christmas! It was written especially to be sung on Christmas Eve at a tiny village church amid the snowy Austrian mountains.

    Show the image of a snowbound Austrian village church.

  6. Explain that because ‘Silent night’ is such a well-known carol, many legends have sprung up about why it was written.

    One story is that there was a very hungry mouse in the village church, and the only thing it could find to eat was the leather bellows used to blow air into the organ. The mouse nibbled away at the bellows until finally, they broke. Without bellows to blow the air, the organ wouldn’t work, so the village priest needed a song that could be accompanied by a guitar instead of an organ. The young village priest was called Joseph and he needed a new Christmas hymn badly, so he wrote the words himself and came up with ‘Silent night’.

    Show the lyrics for the first verse of ‘Silent night’ in German (‘Stille nacht’) and read them out.

  7. Ask the children whether they know of any famous composers.

    Listen to a range of responses.

    Ask the children whether they can think of the names of any German composers.

    Listen to a range of responses.

    Explain that, even though ‘Silent night’ has such an amazing tune, it wasn’t written by a famous composer such as Bach, Mozart or Beethoven. Instead, after the priest, Joseph, had come up with the words to ‘Silent night’, he showed his carol to his good friend, Franz, who was a schoolteacher in the village. A tune for it quickly popped into Franz’s mind.

  8. Explain that on Christmas Eve, in the little Austrian village church, the two friends sang ‘Silent night’ together, with Joseph playing the new tune on his guitar.

    How exciting it must have been to hear that simple, beautiful tune for the very first time! Two hundred years later, the original score, with Franz’s new tune in his own writing, still exists.

  9. Almost 100 years after Franz and Joseph sang together, the First World War began. German soldiers were fighting British and French soldiers day after day, night after night. They dug long trenches opposite one another to keep safe from the bullets. If they lifted their heads out of the trenches, they were in terrible danger.

  10. A few months after the start of the war in 1914, Christmas arrived. It was very cold and snowy. It is said that some of the Germans in their trenches began to sing, ‘Stille Nacht, heilge Nacht’. As the British soldiers sat in their trenches, they could scarcely believe what they were hearing. Then, some of them began to join in, in English: ‘Silent night, holy night’. Of course, the tune of the carol was the same in both languages, so all of the soldiers were able to sing ‘Silent night, but in different languages.

  11. For a short time, Christmas peace came to the trenches. Some of the soldiers climbed out of their trenches and met the opposing soldiers in the land between the two sets of trenches. They shook hands with soldiers whom they had been shooting at only the day before. Some even played football together. At various locations in the battlefields, short truces brought moments of peace as the soldiers remembered the very first Christmas, when baby Jesus was born in the village of Bethlehem.

Time for reflection

Show the lyrics for ‘Silent night’ again.

Ask the children to think about the words of the carol, and then ask the following questions:

- Who is the mother in the carol?
- Who is the child?
- Who are the ‘heavenly hosts’?
- Why are they singing?

Remind the children that for a short time, peace came to the battlefields of the First World War. Ask them to consider how they could bring peace this Christmas to the lives of those around them, both in school and at home.

Prayer
Dear God,
Please help us to remember the story of Jesus being born in Bethlehem.
Let’s sing praise with the angels.
Let’s be happy like the shepherds.
Let’s give presents like the wise men.
Let’s close the door of hate
And open the door of love, all over the world.
Amen.

Song/music

‘Silent night’, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhuZ71j9A1c

(Some schools might like to try to learn a verse in German.)

Publication date: December 2018   (Vol.20 No.12)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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