Every Christmas there is one song that still gets a lot of playtime on broadcast and satellite radio, music streaming services, or reruns of The Office, and that is Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24. The song was first released in 1995 by the band Savatage on their rock opera Dead Winter Dead album. Savatage was one of the more prominent groups in the progressive and symphonic heavy metal scene in its heyday in the 1980’s and 90’s. Far from being mere noise-makers, groups like Savatage were known for producing concept albums that told an extended or interconnected story, as well as mixing menageries of Classical or Baroque melodies with heavy metal power chords.
In 1996 the band took a hiatus and two of it members, Jon Oliva and Al Petrelli, formed a side project which they called The Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Their debut album was another rock opera entitled Christmas Eve and Other Stories which contained a re-recording of “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24”, and the album went on to be one of the best-selling Christmas album of all-time in the United States.
Although the entire album has one overarching story attached to it, the song “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” has its own backstory that is rooted in a real life event. A event that is in some strange way reminiscent of our own tumultuous times on this Christmas holiday as 2023 draws to a close.
The Lone Lamentations of a Cello
The real life inspiration for the song was based on a notable cello player named Vedran Smailović who was known as the “Cellist of Sarajevo.” Smailović was a Bosnian musician who was saddened by all of the death and destruction caused during the siege of Sarajevo during the Serbian War of the early 1990’s. Risking snipers and mortar shells, Smailović played Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor” in the ruins of a town square in Sarajevo for 22 days straight to honor the lives of 22 people who had been killed there during a bombing.
Later, Paul O’Neil, a songwriter and producer for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, used Smailović’s story to write his own about a renowned and aging Serbian cellist who had toured all over Europe for many years before returning to his hometown of Sarajevo at the height of the Serbian War. Like the real life Smailović, he too was saddened at the destruction he saw, but also shocked that it was caused, not from some foreign force but by his fellow countrymen who had turned against one another. Rather than hide away, the cellist sat among the ruins of a town square and the sound of his playing could be heard above the dim of war, proving that humanity could still exist amidst the conflict and destruction.
Musically speaking, the resulting song is a combination of two Christmas carols, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “The Carol of the Bells.” It begins with the former being played on a lone cello along with a piano and a flute. The song then increases in tempo and intensity with a full orchestra, piano, synthesizers and of course the trademark distorted riffs and licks of a heavy metal song. The song is most noted for its beat-driven synthesized rendition of the “Carol of the Bells” melody and the guitar playing near the end as the notes are bent into an impassioned high-pitched wailing befitting of the sad tale being told.
Things Come Apart...
The most striking element of “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” is how the song, without words, effectively evokes the pathos of a lone voice of beauty and humanity amidst a brutal war. A war that came out of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when its iron grip over the various satellite countries in Easter Europe (such as Yugoslavia) came to an end. It was then that the old hatreds among the various ethnicities, religions and cultures resurfaced, and in the absence of some unifying force (even one as diabolical as Communism) to keep those conflicting peoples in check, bloody strife ensued.
While America is nowhere near what the Balkans were (before or during the Serbian War) or are today, there is no denying a prevailing mood in our nation that things are falling apart. In America’s case it is (as it always has been) our nation’s commitment to our founding principles and the trust we having in our leaders to respect the rule of law that are based on those principles. However, as 2023 ends, there is a sense on both sides of the aisles, that while we may still respect (or at least pay a believable amount of lip service to) the rule of law, we do not trust our fellow citizens to do so. Especially in light of all that is happening in our nation and abroad.
We are entering an election year where professional politicians aren’t even pretending to persuade us that their ideas are noble or that they are trying to make the nation a better place. Instead, they resort to law-fare and calumny to frighten us into keeping them in power so they can protect us from or prosecute those “others.” Then there is the open border, where each day tens of thousands of unvetted people are let in and sent all over the country with no real plan on how to provide or pay for their care. All of this as the economy is faltering with inflation on essential goods, stagnant wages, and inevitable shortages that are coming in 2024 due to festering conflicts across the globe.
Those conflicts would be the wars in the Middle East with Israel and Hamas, as well as the proxy war with Iran via the Houthi pirates targeting commercial shipping. There is also the ongoing war in Ukraine that will be entering its third year, and as of yet there still seems to be no real off-ramp for how to end the conflict. Lastly, there is the rising tensions with China over their stance on Taiwan, which was not helped at all by the Biden administration’s most recent inability to take a consistent and firm stance on the issue.
Also keep in mind, that in all of these conflicts there has been a subtle media psyop going on where Americans have, for the last two years or so, gradually been conditioned to accept going to war in any of the aforementioned conflicts. First our leaders offered moral support, then funding and weapons, then elite forces acting as advisors, and finally at some point in the near future ordinary troops being drafted and sent to fight these wars. This may sound preposterous but the more you think on it, the more plausible this gradual process becomes.
...and then Unto Us a Savior is Born
And yet it is Christmas, and as the song “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” reminds us, even amidst the tumult of war, the sound of a long solitary cellist can be heard to remind us that death and destruction do not have the final say. That amid all the din of war and rumors of war all over the globe and the political ones right here in our own homeland, the sound of praise and worship on this Christmas day cannot be silenced. It is the sound of celebrating the birth of Christ, the “image of the invisible God” who emptied himself to be Emmanuel (“God with us”) and to become one of us. It is the sound of a Savior who is born unto us.
As a Catholic commentator once said, “This is the 'good news' that the day of our liberation has arrived, he is not so much a babe as he is king, and he takes on infancy solely for the purpose of revealing his majesty and kingship.” Our Lord and Savior has come, and like the wailing guitar heard in “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24,” the sound of the Savior is the crying of a babe in a manger but also the “schwing” sound of a sword. For while it is true that our Lord brings peace and good tidings to all men of good will, he also brings a sword with which to wage war on the Devil and all his empty promises and plans.
So when one asks, “What child is this?” we can answer, “This is Christ the Lord, through whom the heavens and the earth were created. This is the eternal Logos, the one who brings order to the universe, who leapt from heaven into a manger. He is the divine destroyer of sin.” So no matter what malevolent maelstroms are in store for us in 2024, hold fast to the Traditions and truths handed on to us through the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church, and remain steadfast in your faith and always keep your ears tuned to the sound of our Savior.
From all of us here at The Everyman we wish you all a very Merry and Blessed Christmas.
Photo Credit- One UK Collective