Christmas Eve 2018
What’s your favourite Christmas Carol? The Calypso Carol, the Cowboy Carol, the Donkey Carol perhaps? Or the old favourite, the Laundry Carol, ‘While Shepherds washed their socks by night’, which we all know and love. My favourite last year was the Gorilla Carol – do you know it?:
‘King Kong merrily on high’.
Best sung on top of the empire State building, I feel. No worse than the original ding dong, I daresay…
This year there are some new ones, among them ‘Silent Fright’ – the Ghost Carol, the Miners’ Carol – ‘Oh Coaly night’ and the Shoemakers’ Carol - ‘Heels of the North rejoice’. But my favourite new one is the orthodontists’ carol: ‘God rest ye merry, dental men’.
But seriously, what’s your favourite genuine Christmas Carol? Silent Fright and O Coaly Night notwithstanding, in recent years ‘O Holy Night’ has won a lot of votes in Christmas people’s votes – or referenda I suppose we should call them – and another carol that has often topped the peoples plebiscites is the ever so European ‘Stille Nacht’. ‘Silent Night’ as we call it was written exactly 200 years ago, and a hundred years ago they were singing it on both sides of the trenches. But it received its first ever performance 200 years ago, almost to this very hour on Christmas Eve, when it was sung by Franz Grüber and Joseph Mohr, the school master and the parish priest of the little Austrian parish of Oberndorf, not so far from Salzburg.
So, in commemorative celebration of this unique Christmas moment, Bella and Elise are going to sing it for us, in its original version, for guitar and two singers. I am sure you will find it to be a fascinating light version, delicate and, be warned, not quite what we have become used to as the carol, Christmas pudding fashion has gained not only a heavy sentimentalism, but a lot of sugar on top too! Also some weight of tradition, which should now be shed. The story that Grüber wrote it for performance on Christmas Eve 1818 when the organ pipes had been chewed by mice is complete and utter American nonsense. Fake news from the last century, I’m afraid. The fact that Radio Three and Classic FM have been telling this story all this week doesn’t make it any less fictional, I’m afraid. Mohr had written the words two years earlier, but having given the text to Grüber they planned it as a lovely midnight mass surprise. Just like this, In fact:
PLAY Stille Nacht
A century later, a century ago, the carol was heard wafting across the pock-marked chasms of the trenches, inviting shell-shocked troops to lay down their arms for a day or two and engage in the marginally more friendly activity of an anglo-German football match. And then the himmlisches ruh’ – the heavenly peace that had descended, lifted and the barrage of noise and carnage continued unabated until that Armistice we commemorated only a few weeks ago. The history of ‘Silent Night’, like the history of any significant cultural or religious object, is the history of humanity. And it also gives an insight into the present – type ‘Silent Night’ into an Amazon search, and it doesn’t even count the number of matches - ‘over 60,000’ it told me. I was vaguely wondering how many recordings of the carol there are. ‘Silent Night’ is, however, a brand of bedding, so a large number of purchase options were in fact for duvets and pillows. All aids for a silent night snoozing in heavenly peace, no doubt.
But it was 200 years ago, at this very hour, on Christmas Eve 1818 that it all began. Well, I say ‘this very hour’, but even though standard time zoning wasn’t introduced until the 1870s, Viennese time was actually 1 hour and five minutes ahead of Greenwich at least until 1894. So, given that we started this evening’s service at 1115 and assuming that they started in 1818 at Midnight, we have compensated for that 65 minute difference.
Perhaps they are singing 'Stille Nacht’ in Austria right now. Although the original church in Oberndorf was demolished after floods in 1905, the popularity of the carol led to a ‘Silent Night Chapel’ being erected as a tourist attraction. There is some irony in the fact that Oberndorf is not far from the Kehlsteinhaus (‘Eagle’s Nest’) built as a retreat for Hitler in the mountains above Berchtesgaden. A day trip to that region could easily include both places, one extolling the virtues of heavenly peace as declared by the angels, and the other representing the dark and rather unpeaceful history of the Third Reich. Such contrasts pervade modern life: we sing romantic carols about a baby boy with blond curls born at Bethlehem, while yet remembering the trials and tribulations that that little town has suffered over two millennia of sin and strife. We love the Nineteenth-century idea of Christmas, with yule logs and plastic music boxes that play ‘Silent Night’, and also try to worship the Christ-child in the manger as the harbinger of something uniquely profound and significant.
Nowadays of course carols vie for popularity with the Christmas Adverts. So much time and energy is expended on these by the major companies – supermarkets and retailers, all vying for our attention and of course, our money. Well, by now it is all over bar the eating and weight-gaining of tomorrow’s dinner. But tomorrow a total of 86 million hours of TV will be watched – that’s an average of 3 and a half hours each, it is certainly big business and the adverts are hugely influential.
Most of them are not about peace and goodwill though, are they?! ASDA invited us to ‘bring Christmas home’. PC World told us that Christmas is all about ‘upgrading’. And the John Lewis advert this year, in which we are invited to enter the story, not of the Christ child, but of Sir Elton John, tells us that ‘some gifts are more than a gift’. Meanwhile our local buses have had emblazoned on them – ‘Palace Gardens Shopping Centre – ‘Believe in the magic of Christmas’, and go there to get ‘the perfect gift’.
As usual therefore, on our screens we see the epitome of the Brexit-era Christmas – a combination of the sublime and the ridiculous. The online retailer Firebox had a large advert on the Underground in which were emblazoned the words: “Christmas is all about warm and joyful times with your family” and that had been crossed out to say ‘Christmas is all about… the Presents’. ‘Stuff the family’, it seemed to say – along with the turkey, that is. Had I the ability to ‘track further changes’, as it were and nip across the live tracks and add my own contribution to that advert, I would have spelt ‘presents’ differently.
‘c-e’ at the end, rather than ‘t-s’.
And then we would have had something true and inspiring – for Christmas truly is all about the presence. The presence of God-with-us, Emmanuel, incarnate in the Christ Child. For while we may yet want to agree with PC World that that the birth of Jesus at Christmas truly is an upgrade for humanity, as humanity takes on divinity, actually it is Jesus who is the perfect gift – the perfect present – the perfect presence, on this and every, silent, night. And, as ASDA might put it, it is in Christ that Christmas really does come home – home to the hearth and home to the heart. As another carol puts it:
How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His Heaven,
No ear may hear His coming;
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him, still
The dear Christ enters in.
This is the upgraded perfect Christmas gift that is more than a gift, that comes home to us in the silence of this holy night. For it is nothing less than ‘the dawn of redeeming grace’, Here, and now, and in every place.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 24/12/18