European Christmases in Centuries Past
Christmas - Wikimedia Commons
by Kathy Warnes
Over the centuries , important historical events in Europe took place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Some of them included Charlemagne’s crowning as emperor, St. Francis of Assisi creating the first Nativity scene, Franz Gruber and Josef Mohr writing Silent Night, Napoleon surviving an assassination attempt, and the weather completely burying several Christmases.
Charlemagne Was Crowned Emperor, December 25, 800
Charlemagne ruled as King of the Franks from 768 and expanded his Frankish kingdom into an empire incorporating much of Western and Central Europe.In nearly every year of his reign, Charlemagne scored military successes that helped him expand his Frankish kingdom. His tactics included awarding booty to his soldiers and government officials to ensure their loyalty and fighting for Christianity as a political strategy. Although Charlemagne used Christianity, he also believed in Christ and fought for Christianity so well that people hailed him "as the strong right arm of God." He cherished the Church of St. Peter and the Apostle at Rome and helped its treasury and sent gifts to the Popes. He enjoyed an especially close relationship with Pope Hadrian I.
Charlemagne admired Rome so much that he had his palace built with Roman inspired architecture and decoration. He believed in and wanted to defend the Church of St. Peter and he used his authority to protect ecclesiastical property provided the church with monetary support, including enforcing a 10 percent income tax on all Christians to support the church.
In the year 800 A.D., Charlemagne traveled to Rome to help organize the church affairs. On Christmas Day in 800 A.D., he knelt in prayer in Saint Peter’s. As he prayed the Pope Leo III placed a gold crown on his head and crowned him emperor, thus laying the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire. He ruled as Emperor from 800 A.D. until his death in 1814 A.D.
Christmas Day, December 25, 1223, St. Francis of Assisi Assembled the First Nativity Scene
On Christmas Eve, 1223, in Greccio, Italy, St. Francis of Assisi recreated the scene of Christ’s birth. His first biographer, Brother Thomas of Celano who died around 1255, described how St. Francis accomplished this. About fifteen days before Christmas, St. Francis sent for a man named John who lived in Greccio. John had a good reputation and Francis loved and trusted him. He told John that he wanted to create a visual scene of Christ’s birth so that people would remember it better. John hurried to prepare to recreate the manger scene.
Christmas Eve drew near and men and women arrived in Greccio bringing candles and torches to light up the night. The manger filled with hay, stood waiting. The ox and ass were led in and stood peacefully watching the people come, faces alight with joy. The good brothers arrived and sang praises to the Lord.
Francis stood before the manger, wearing a deacon’s vestments, and he sang the holy gospel with a sweet voice. Then he preached passionately to the people standing around, telling them about the birth of the humble king and the little city of Bethlehem. Often when he mentioned Jesus Christ, Francis called him "the child of Bethlehem." When he spoke the word "Bethlehem" or "Jesus," he licked his lips with his tongue, appearing to taste the sweetness of these words.
One of the virtuous men standing near the manager believed that he saw a little child lying lifeless in the manger and he saw Francis approach and arouse the child as if from a deep sleep. Brother Thomas writes "nor was this an unfitting visions, for in the hearts of many the child Jesus had really been forgotten, but now, by his grace and through his servant Francis, he had been brought back to life and impressed here by loving recollection."
Finally, the recreation of the birth of Christ ended and each returned joyfully home. The hay from the manager was kept to bring health to the animals and many animals throughout Greccio and the region were cured of their illnesses by eating hay from the manger. When some of the hay from the manger was placed upon them, women who were experiencing a long and difficult labor safely gave birth. Many men and women with various illnesses who touched the hay were miraculously healed.
Eventually a church was build on the site where the manger stood and an altar constructed . The church was dedicated in honor of Father Francis so that where animals once had eaten hay men and women could gain health in soul and body and be blessed by the "love of Jesus Christ our Lord, Hallelujah! Hallelujah!"
Napoleon Contemplated His Narrow Escape from Death on Christmas Day, 1800
On Christmas day, December 25, 1800, Paris buzzed with the news of Napoleon’s narrow escape from death. On Christmas Eve, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, his wife, Josephine, and other family and friends planned to attend the opening of Haydn’s "Creation" at the Opera in the rue de Loi, not far away from the Tuileries. Paris newspapers announced that Napoleon planned to attend the evening performance. As his wife Josephine, his stepdaughter Hortense, and his sister Caroline prepared to leave the Tuileries for the theater, Josephine lagged behind to allow Jean Rapp, who had served with Napoleon in Egypt, to arrange her shawl in the Egyptian manner.
Napoleon went ahead in his carriage with Jean Lannes, Charles Francois Lebrun and Jean Baptiste Bessieres and a cavalry escort. Josephine, Hortense, Caroline who was eight months pregnant, and Jean Rapp followed behind them. Germain, Napoleon’s coachman, drove swiftly through the narrow streets and as the carriage neared the theater a tremendous explosion shattered the windows of the coach. The carriage carrying the women careened and one of the horses was killed. The screaming ladies huddled in a corner of the coach trying to escape the debris raining down around them. Hortense held her wrist that had been cut by flying glass and her dress was splattered with blood. Josephine fainted, but Caroline remained calm.
Conspirators had built a huge bomb filled with pieces of iron into a barrel on a horse drawn cart with the objective of killing Napoleon, and it had gone off in the Rue Saint Nicaise, where it met the Rue de Malte, almost in front of the Café d’Apollon, about where the statue of Gambetta now stands in the Tuileries Garden. The bomb or the infernal machine had exploded after Napoleon’s carriage passed and before Josephine’s had arrived. Napoleon and his family had survived the blast, but at least 52 people, including a dozen in the café were killed or injured. The conspirators had paid a young girl, Pensel, twelve sous to hold the horse yoked to the cart while they escaped and she and her horse were killed. Numerous buildings in the vicinity were also destroyed or damaged.
Badly shaken, Napoleon continued his journey and when he reached the Opera, the audience gave him a standing ovation. He already sat in his box when he saw Josephine and her party come into the Opera. When Rapp entered, Napoleon’s first word was a question. "Josephine…?"
Napoleon and his party stayed in their box long enough to show that they wouldn’t be intimidated, but they left the Opera before the end of the performance.
Christmas 1818, The First Known Christmas Carol, "Silent Night, Holy Night," Was Sung in Austria
Fr. Joseph Mohr was born in poverty in Salzburg, Austria in 1792. By 1816, Joseph Mohr was a young priest assigned to a pilgrimage church in Mariapfarr, Austria. His grandfather lived nearby and possibly he wrote the original six stanzas of Silent Night while walking through the peaceful, starlit countryside on the way to visit his grandfather. He was transferred to Oberndorf in 1817.
On December 24, 1818, Joseph Mohr found himself making another countryside journey to the home of Franz Gruber, a musician and schoolteacher who lived in an apartment over the schoolhouse in nearby Arnsdorf. He showed his friend his poem and asked him to add a melody and guitar accompaniment so it could be sung at Midnight Mass.
Some versions of his story say that he wanted a new carol because the organ wouldn’t work. Other versions say that the assistant pastor loved guitar music and wanted a new carol for Christmas. Whatever the motivation for the new carol, Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber with the choir behind them, stood in front of the main altar in St. Nicholas Church and sang "Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!" for the first time. The Stille Nacht manuscript dated around 1820 is for guitar accompaniment and is probably closest to the version that Fr. Mohr and Franz Gruber sang at Midnight Mass in 1818.
Karl Mauracher, master organ builder and repairman, traveled to Oberndorf to work on the organ several times and while doing his work at St. Nicholas he got a copy of Stille Nacht and took it home with him. The simple carol began its globe traveling journey around labeled as a "Tyrolean Folk Song."
Two families of traveling folk singers from the Ziller Valley incorporated Stille Nacht into their repertoire. According to the Leipziger Tageblatt, the Strassers sang Stille Nacht in a concert in Leipzig in December 1832. During this time, several musical notes were changed and the carol evolved into the modern melody.
A historical plaque says that the Ranier Family sang Stille Nacht in front of an audience including Emperor Franz I and Tsar Alexander I. In 1839, the Rainers performed Stille Nacht for the first time in America at the Alexander Hamilton Monument outside of Trinity Church in New York City.
By the 1840s, Joseph Bletzacher, the Court Opera singer from Hannover reported that Silent Night was already well known in Lower Saxony. He said that "the Royal Cathedral Choir in Berlin popularized Silent Night and it became the favorite Christmas carol of King Frederick William IV of Prussia. He used to have the Cathedral Choir sing Silent Night for him during the Christmas season of each year."
By the time Silent Night had become famous in Europe, Father Joseph Mohr had died and he had not received credit for composing the words of the carol. In 1848, Father Mohr died penniless in Wagrain where he had served as pastor of St. Johann’s and donated all of his earnings for eldercare and education. The townspeople built him a memorial Joseph Mohr School located a dozen yards from his grave. In a report to the bishop, the overseer of St. Johann’s described Father Mohr as "a reliable friend of mankind, toward the poor, a gentle, helping father."
Franz Gruber wrote to the music authorities in Berlin informing them that he had composed the music to Stille Nacht, but the myth that Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven had written the music persisted into the twentieth century. In 1995, a manuscript was discovered, dated by researchers around 1820. Written in Mohr’s handwriting, he revealed that he had composed the words in 1816 when he was pastor at a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr, Austria. It shows that Gruber composed the music in 1818. This is the earliest existing manuscript and the only one in Mohr’s handwriting.
Weathering the Christmas Weather, December 25, 1902
Professor Ledochowski of Vienna predicted on October 4, 1902 that Europe would have the worst winter in fifty years, both in temperature and snow. Nobody paid him any attention. Beginning in late November of 1902, a cold wave spread across Europe, held the continent in its grip and wouldn’t let go. The temperature plunged to freezing in Nice and other resorts along the Mediterranean. White snow, blue Mediterranean.
Sleighing and skating parties abounded. In Berlin people skated for several days and the lowest temperature reached ten degrees. In fact, all Germany was snow and frost bound. In Paris the temperature plunged to 20 degrees and there was much suffering. In the south of France the suffering increased because the people had not been prepared for it. The temperature was below freezing all along the south coast and those rich ones who attempted to escape the rigors of the northern clime were driven to Algiers and Egypt.
Gales and heavy seas interfered with the Channel traffic and there were many minor casualties among the shipping. The fall of snow in general including the Channel Islands was almost unprecedented.
The Dutch canals were frozen over and the harbor at Copenhagen was packed with ice and many ships were ice bound. Heavy falls of snow were experienced in the Alps and some Swiss villages were isolated. Trains were delayed in Austria and the streets of Vienna were dangerous for pedestrians.
Telegrams from all parts of Europe recorded severe weather and snows, the temperature being several degrees below freezing point.Heavy snows fell before Christmas and the cold spell lasted until after the holidays.
Twenty First Century Christmas seasons so far have featured war and peace, tsunamis, and snowstorms, but every Christmas carolers sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Have a peaceful, Merry Christmas!
Becher, Matthias. Charlemagne. Yale University Press, 2003
McLynn, Frank. Napoleon. Arcade Publishing, 2002.
Sabatier, Paul (author) and Sweeney, Jon (editor). The Road to Assisi: The Essential Biography of St. Francis. Paraelete Press, 2004