Silent Night - The Birth of a Christmas Carol

Silent Night Chapel

In 1792, Joseph Mohr was born into less than well off circumstances in the Austrian city of Salzburg. His mother was unmarried and his father had deserted her before Joseph's birth. His mother worked hard to make sure her son received a good education, and soon a local priest took Mohr under his wing. The priest encouraged Mohr's natural musical talent and made sure that he received an education. Mohr studied at a Benedictine monastery starting in 1808, began seminary school in 1811, and by 1815 he had been ordained as a priest.

In 1816, Mohr was working as an assistant priest in the town of Mariapfarr, 75 miles South of Salzburg. During his time there, he writes a poem describing the birth of the baby Jesus. He files the poem away with his things and goes on about his duties at the church. The following year, poor health forces him to return to Salzburg. Mohr recovers and in 1818 he takes another job as an assistant priest at the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria, a small town about 10 miles North of Salzburg.

Inspiration

In the early 19th century, groups of musicians and actors would travel from town to town in the Austrian Alps giving performances in various churches during the Christmas Season. On December 23rd, 1818, they came to the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf. They were to give a play reenacting the story of the birth of Christ as told in the first chapters of the books of Matthew and Luke. Unfortunately, the church organ was not working and would not be repaired until after Christmas. Because of this, the actors gave their performance that night at a private home.

glowing snow covered village

Josef Mohr was touched in a special way that night by the performance. After the church service was over, Mohr took a walk around town for a little while instead of walking straight home, so that he could meditate over what he had felt during the performance. His walk took him up over a hill where he stood for a moment to take in a view of his entire town.

Mohr looked down on the peaceful snow covered town. Taking in the silence of the glowing scene, his thoughts wandered to a poem he had written two years earlier. His poem was written about angels announcing the birth of Jesus to shepherds on a hillside as told in the book of Luke. He thought those words might make for a good Christmas Carol for the choir of his church to sing the following evening at their Christmas Eve service.

His only dilemma was finding music to set his poem to. So the next morning Mohr met with his church organist, Franz Xaver Gruber, to see what the two could create together. Gruber didn't have a tremendous amount of time to come up with a suitable melody. And as the organ was broken, any melody would have to be played on a guitar. By that night, the two had composed a beautiful musical setting for Mohr's poem. It no long longer mattered to them that their organ wasn't working. They now had a Christmas Carol that was just as moving without it.

That Christmas Eve, the Oberndorg congregation heard Mohr and Gruber sing their new carol to the accompaniment of Gruber's guitar.

A score autographed by Mohr was discovered in 1995. It cites the date of the text's creation. In the lower left of the image below is written: Text von Joseph Mohr. It is the earliest known manuscript of "Silent Night".

Silent Night Copy_Signed by Joseph Mohr Copy of original composition for "Silent Night"
by Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber (December 24, 1818)
photo credit: Silent Night Association

After Christmas, the well known organ builder, Karl Mauracher, arrived in Oberndorf to repair the organ in St. Nicholas church. When Mauracher had finished his work, he stepped back to let Gruber test the newly repaired organ himself. Gruber sat down at the organ. The first song he played was the simple melody he had written weeks earlier for Mohr's poem. Mauracher was deeply impressed, and he took copies of the music and words of "Silent Night" back to his own Alpine village of Kapfing. There, two famous families of singers, the Rainers and the Strassers, heard it for themselves for the first time. Thoroughly captivated by the song themselves, both groups included it in their own Christmas cantatas.

The Strasser family would go on to spread the Christmas carol across Northern Europe. In 1834 they performed "Silent Night" for King Frederich William IV of Prussia. After hearing it, he ordered his cathedral choir to sing it every Christmas Eve from then on.

Twenty years after it was written, the Rainer family brought the song to the United States, singing it (in German) at the Alexander Hamilton Monument outside of the Trinity Church in New York City.

In 1863, nearly fifty years after the song had first been created, "Silent Night" was translated into English, either by Jane Campbell or John Young. Eight years after that the English version made its way into Charles Hutchin's Sunday School Hymnal. From then on it was sung in countless churches across America every Christmas.

Worldwide Reach

"Silent Night" has since been translated into over 140 languages. It remains one of the most famous Christmas carols in the world today. In 2011 the Silent Night Carol was added to the UNESCO list of Immaterial Cultural Heritages.

At my own church in a small town in America, I remember us all singing "Silent Night" together as we held candles at the end of every Christmas Eve service. This is still a touching moment when we go back to our hometown every year for Christmas.



Silent Night

Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Saviour is born
Christ, the Saviour is born

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth



Originally published

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Silent Night – The Birth of a Christmas Carol

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