My grandfather would always walk out of the room when he heard this carol. It was bizarre. Up he’d get and storm off grumbling to himself. I can remember my Nan smiling sadly to us all and explaining it away with “he just can’t bear to hear it; it’s to do with the war”.
It puzzled me for years. Sometime in my teens I thought I had it figured. Silent Night is a German carol. That must be it, I thought. The Germans, the war time foe. Though his reaction was so extreme this hardly seemed a decent explanation.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that he finally told me the reason. Before his illness and old age robbed him of the ability and the will to tell me stories of his war time experiences he just came out with it one lunch time while we were tucking into fish and chips.
My grandfather was a seaman in the Royal Navy and took part in a great number of the convoys that carried and fetched supplied to and from South Africa, Europe, Malta and the Med, etc. His ship, H.M.S. Kelvin, saw a good deal of action and was one of the ships celebrated for breaking through the curtain the Germans and Italians had put around Malta – it was certainly the exploit that he spoke about with the most ease and pride.
This other story though was more painful and was one he’d carried around with him for more than 60 years without speaking much about it...
I believe his ship was part of a night convoy in the North Atlantic. It was winter and bitterly cold. A man overboard would be dead within minutes – from the cold rather than drowning. The going was cautious – German U-Boats were about and very active. The ships were effectively operating under black-out – no lights, engines only and no radio communication. Anything to minimize the possibility of a U-Boat picking them up. Another stipulation was that the ships were not allowed to stop. Not for anything. Not even to help a comrade fallen overboard. They had to keep going; they had to get through.
The ship ahead was unlucky. A U-Boat picked her off sometime in the small hours and she went down spilling her crew - hundreds of men - into the water.
The other ships, including my grandfather’s could not stop to pick up the survivors. They knew this. The men in the water also knew this and very softly sang Silent Night as the convoy and their comrades continued on into the night and away from them.
I cannot imagine the pain of having to live through that night and of having such a memory bubble to the surface for every Christmas that you experience afterwards. If not for his reaction to the carol we would never have known.
When I hear Silent Night now I too will feel sad and an aching sense of pain though for different reasons. And I shall remember all the Christmases when my grandfather disappeared out into the kitchen to bang about with the kettle until the carol had finished.
And I shall feel regret and I shall feel sorrow.
But mostly I shall feel pride.