The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #376: Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 by The Trans Siberian Orchestra (KTOM)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #376: Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 by The TransSiberian Orchestra.

One of the most important lessons that I learned while working with young children as a teacher was that we, as adults, do ourselves and our children a disservice when we take for granted that our base of general knowledge is automatically their base of general knowledge, too. In other words, when we fail to explain their world to them because we think they already understand it all. A simple example relates to Christmas.

One of the curriculum guidelines that I followed as a teacher of Grades 1 and 2 stated that children should have knowledge of, and be able to explain the nature of the traditions enjoyed by their families. Fair enough. Virtually every child could tell me Christmas traditions that their family followed such as putting up the Christmas tree, some of the decorations they used, some of the food that was prepared and so on. Brainstorming such a list was never an issue. But, when I asked what was the reason that we bring a tree into our living rooms, for example (because on the surface of things, that is kind of a weird thing to suddenly do in December), the kids had no clue at all. So, part of what we did in class in the weeks leading up to the Christmas Holiday break was to explore one facet of Christmas traditions each day and for me to help the children understand what was happening in the world around them so that their experiences in life made some kind of sense.

Fast forward to my final year of teaching. I had the great pleasure of having a special friend in my classroom all year named Deb Wilton (who is a faithful reader of these posts, too). Deb is an Educational Assistant by trade, which means she works with students who require extra assistance in order to successfully navigate their way through their school day. Because of her efforts, Deb helped make my job as classroom teacher easier. We were a good team. Part of how that teamwork manifested itself was in how, every now and then, Deb would come to me with an idea or suggestion, based on what we were learning in class at the time. So, it was no surprise that she approached me one day during our Christmas Unit with a suggestion for a carol the kids might enjoy. (We were looking at the background of famous Christmas carols, too, as part of exploring the meanings behind the traditions of Christmas). She suggested I check out a claymation-based video of an orchestra performing “The Carol of the Bells”. She said that she was sure the class would like it and that she thought my girls at home would like it, too. Well, Deb was correct! The video is an absolute hoot and a holler! I loved it at first sight and shared it with the kids in class and my girls at home. While both, Leah and Sophie liked the video, it was Leah who really got into it. Ever since hearing the TransSiberian Orchestra’s version of this song, Leah always comes alive with delight. So, when I asked the girls for their list of ten songs for me to discuss in these posts, I was not surprised that Leah picked this song (It is #8 on her list of ten songs.) It is definitely one of her favourites now so, thanks, Deb!

But, a funny thing happened on the way to making this post. In doing my research, I came to learn that just about everything I thought I knew about this song was, in fact, wrong. Here is the amazing, true story of the song I have always called “Carol of the Bells” by TSO. First things first, The TransSiberian Orchestra is, in fact, not an orchestra in the traditional sense. The TSO is actually a side project put together by some members of a Heavy Metal band out of Miami called Savatage. Savatage had released several albums in the early 1970s and were contemporaries of such Metal heavyweights as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and the like. But, as often happens when a band has been together for a number of years, some of the members decided that they wanted to take a turn trying something a bit different. At that time in music history, “rock operas” were the big trend, as well as, epic, lengthy, “prog rock” concept albums from bands such as Rush, Yes and Genesis. The guys from Savatage decided to create a series of six rock operas, some of which would have a Christmas component to them. They decided to do this under the moniker of “The TransSiberian Orchestra” *(The band name originated because of a trip that member Paul O’ Neill took across Siberia on the TransSiberian Railrway and how beautiful and rugged he found it all).

One of the concept albums they released as TSO was called, “Dead Winter Dead”. On this album was a song entitled, “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24”. This song is the one that is played on radio and the one I have always called, “Carol of the Bells”.”Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24″ is structured, musically, upon the traditional carols, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, as well as, “Carol of the Bells”. However, the inspiration for the song has nothing at all to do with Christmas. In fact, the band drew their inspiration from a real life example of the strength of the human spirit that happened during the Balkan War in the 1980s.

You may recall that the city of Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, hosted the Winter Olympic Games in 1984. Just prior to the Games taking place, military strongman, Josip Broz Tito died. He was no hero but, under his authoritarian rule, he was able to keep the various ethnic factions that comprised the Balkans in their regional areas. However, in the political vacuum that arose after his death, various nationalist groups sprang up and, not long after the Winter Olympics had successfully concluded, the entire Balkan region of Europe descended into Civil War. One of the most famous events of this war was called The Siege of Sarajevo. The beautiful, cosmopolitan city that had just been held up to the world as a beacon of ethnic co-operation and harmony, fell under the siege guns of the Serbian Army. Sarajevo is ringed by hills and mountains so, when the perimeter of the city was taken by the Serbs, they placed their artillery guns on high and were able to pound the city unmercifully. Sarajevo was laid waste. But, the image that shocked the world most was the fact that Serbian snipers were training their guns on citizens who were starving and who were attempting to do simple things such as buying bread in the marketplace. On the worst day for deaths by sniper fire, 22 civilians were shot dead in the town square. Men, women, children, the elderly….no one was safe from the sniper’s bullets.

But, as the Siege of Sarajevo dragged on, something miraculous began to happen. A man named Vedran Smailovic decided that enough was enough. He was a trained cellist. Smailovic decided that he needed to do something to inspire his fellow citizens of Sarajevo to hold on and not give up hope. He felt that the strength of the human spirit was more powerful than the Hate of the Serbian Army. So, Smailovic took his cello and went into the ruins of a church and he began to play. In the silence that had blanketed Sarajevo at night, his notes rang out and spread across the city. He played the same song each night (Adagio in G minor). He played that song for exactly 22 minutes, in honour of the 22 victims of sniper fire in the marketplace that sad day. When the siege finally ended and the survivors were being interviewed, many related the story of hearing the “Cellist of Sarajevo” playing at night and how his music gave them something to look forward to amid the gloom and despair of the war. As it turned out, it wasn’t just the survivors of the siege who were inspired by Smailovic’s actions. So, too, were a bunch of heavy metal musicians who wanted to write a rock opera about Christmas!

So, as you listen to this song with wiser ears, note the use of a cello at the beginning of the song (a tip of the hat to Smailovic), note how the opening tune mimics “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and note the use of electric guitars (the heavy metal influence). The name of this song is not “Carol of the Bells”, as I have so mistakenly been calling it all these years, it is actually, “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” in honour of the miracle of The Siege of Sarajevo and the power of Hope and Love that can often be found at Christmas time. I will post the official TSO video below, along with the claymation video that started this all off. In addition, I will post a news report about the “Cellist of Sarajevo” so you can see the story for yourself. Have a happy day and be on the lookout for miracles. They tend to show up when least expected but most needed.

The link for the video for “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24″by The TransSiberian Orchestra, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The TransSiberian Orchestra, can be found here.

The link to the claymation video for “Carol of the Bells” can be found here. *It’s a hoot, trust me!

The link to the news report concerning the Cellist of Sarajevo” can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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