Christmas Season, Sarajevo, 1994

Happy Holidays from the IUSB International Programs Department!

Following in a similar vein as our last post, we present another well-known incident that happened during the Christmas Season in Sarajevo, during the worst part of the Bosnian War. The heavy metal band Savatage commemorated this event with a song named Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 and placed it in the context of a story they developed for a concept album about tolerance. Reminiscing and borrowing from the Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo, the members wrote the tale about a Serbian Christian boy who loved a Bosniak Muslim girl and how their nation tore them apart. Even though it is a Savatage song, it is best known by the members of Savatage’s side project, Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

ImageThe song is essentially an instrumental medley of the Ukrainian song Carol of the Bells and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen with other parts written by rock producer Paul O’Neill and members of Savatage. The song describes a lone cellist playing long-forgotten Christmas carols. This part of the story is based off of a true account:

… We heard about this cello player born in Sarajevo many years ago (Vedran Smailović)…I think what most broke this man’s heart was that the destruction was not done by some outside invader or natural disaster—it was done by his own people. At that time, Serbs were shelling Sarajevo every night. Rather than head for the bomb shelters like his family and neighbors, this man went to the town square, climbed onto a pile of rubble that had once been the fountain, took out his cello, and played Mozart and Beethoven as the city was bombed…It was just such a powerful image…Sometime later, a reporter tracked him down to ask why he did this insanely stupid thing [and he said] said that it was his way of proving that despite all evidence to the contrary, the spirit of humanity was still alive in that place.

Paul O’Neill goes on to say that the “song basically wrapped itself around him.” O’Neill and Savatage chose some of the oldest Christmas carols and the “orchestra represents one side, the rock band the other, and single cello represents that single individual, that spark of hope.” The images placed in O’Neill’s mind when he heard this story and its message of hope is undeniable and inspirational. So when you are out shopping and a “heavy metal” version of Carol of the Bells or a slow contemplative Silent Night playing at the store stop and remember the “Cellist of Sarajevo” and the “Christmas Truce” and the hope these events produced in times of tragedy.ImageListen here:


Breimeier, Russ (2003-12-22). “Interview with Paul O’Neill on“. Retrieved on 12-04-13.


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