A FEW OTHER EVENTS FOR
DECEMBER 24:

  • Happy birthday to Noel Streatfeild (Ballet Shoes) and Stephenie Meyer (Twilight).
  • It’s the birth date of Feodor Rojankovsky (1891–1970), Over in the Meadow, Frog Went A-Courtin’.
  • It’s also the birth date of Howard Hughes (1905–1976) the aviator, inventor, filmmaker, philanthropist, and eventual recluse.
  • Horrors! In 1851 a fire breaks out at the Library of Congress and two-thirds of the collection burns. Thank goodness this National Library of the United States is still going strong. Read American Treasures in the Library of Congress: Memory, Reason, Imagination.
  • As well as Christmas Eve, it’s National Eggnog Day.

On December 24, 1818, a Christmas carol with a beautiful melody and words of peace—one created by an Austrian priest and a headmaster—was first performed in the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria. Of all my own childhood memories, the ones of singing this song, known in English as “Silent Night,” remain the most vivid. My German ancestors left the country in 1870, pacifists who did not want to fight for the Kaiser. Although staunch Americans through two World Wars, they spoke their native tongue at home. And so, as a child, I learned from my grandmother the German words for “Stille Nacht” and sang it with her during the holiday season. I thought having a bilingual Grandmother was one of the coolest things in the world.

During a concert in 1984 folksinger John McCutcheon heard a story that seized his imagination. One Christmas Eve during World War I English soldiers in the trenches sang Christmas carols to each other. Then, across the battlefield, Germans soldiers began singing “Stille Nacht,” and both sides joined in, each in their own language. McCutcheon was so taken with this vignette that he wrote a song about it during the intermission of his concert, and “Christmas in the Trenches” became one of the great peace songs of the decade. Sung by an Englishman Thomas Tolliver, the song tells of what happened that Christmas Eve in World War I and ends with the words, “on each side of the rifle we’re the same.”

In 2006 Atlanta-based Peachtree Press issued McCutcheon’s retelling for children, Christmas in the Trenches, with art by Henri Sorensen. Retold songs don’t always make the best picture book texts, but this book is an exception to that rule. McCutcheon adds details that children need to the text, and Sorensen provides panoramic views of the battlefield and trenches. As the men wait for war, they hear a German singer strike up a song; soon all join in. After a flag of truce, the men exchange gifts and commodities and then head back to wait for the next day of war. A CD has been enclosed that includes McCutcheon reading the text and performing both “Stille Nacht” and his famous ballad. Together the book and CD bring this small incident of history to life.

For me Christmas Eve will always bring back memories of my dear bilingual grandmother. How I miss her. And how grateful I am for the songs and the books that she gave me—these have stayed with me for more than fifty years.

Here’s a page from Christmas in the Trenches:

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Originally posted December 24, 2010. Updated for .

Tags: Christmas, History, Holidays, Music, Social Conscience, World War I
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Christmas in the Trenches
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COMMENTS

  1. This story brings tears to my eyes. Have to remember to highlight it for students and teachers alike.

  2. Helen Frost says:

    Thank you for this, and for your daily offerings of peace and good cheer, Anita. May your Christmas be merry and bright.

  3. suzi w. says:

    I remember hearing the John McCutcheon song. It’s a great reminder of the power of Christmas. Merry Christmas, Anita!!

  4. G. Perry says:

    The art looks very special. I’ll be looking at it.

    You have to know those German soldiers had to be thinking : “What on earth are we doing here in the first place.”

    “Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation”

    BBC Coat of Arms

  5. Anita says:

    The Brain Lair, Helen, Suzi, Gordon: Merry Christmas to you all. Thank you for being such faithful readers of the Almanac. You keep me going. Anita

  6. Carol Sibley says:

    This is a great read aloud book for the Christmas season, or really for any time of the year.

  7. What a beautiful story about this beautiful carol! I will share it with my family, and remember the story each time I hear it or join in singing it. Thank you, and Merry Christmas!

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