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The Story Behind Silent Night: It’s History and Mystery
Christmas is like no other time of the year. It is a time of new-filled hope, good-cheer, decorations, Christmas Carols and time with family and friends. And for many, there is no more intimate and heart-warming scene than the ending of a Christmas Eve Service, . . . when the candles are lit and the most beloved Christmas Carol of all time is sung, “Silent Night, Holy Night.”
"Silent Night" is believed to be translated in almost 300 different languages and dialects, and over the years, this Christmas Carol has been being recorded by over 300 different artists. We listen to it, light candles to it, and millions will sing it at Christmas Eve Services around the world.
But what is it about this simple poem, set to such a simple melody, that makes it so beloved by so many?
What is the story behind this beloved Christmas Carol? And what is some of its mystery that makes it so special to so many?
Beginning of Joseph Mohr’s Journey in the Priesthood
Having completed his seminary studies in Salzburg, young Joseph Mohr was ordained a priest in 1815. His first appointment was as assistant priest of the parish in Mariapfarr in the Province of Salzburg. Although Joseph Mohr never knew his father, Mariapfarr was the home of his father’s family.
It is believed that at this time, Mohr met his grandfather for the very first time and began a relationship, that though cut short due to his grandfather’s death, meant a great deal to the young assistant priest. Mohr’s grandfather would only live a few months while Joseph was in Mariapfarr, but his grandfather’s impact appears to have been long-lasting.
The Christmas Eve Mass in Mariapfarr in 1815 included not only the usual Latin litany, but also singing songs in German as well as the use of folk instruments. Many have wondered how this event might have impacted the young Mohr in his thoughts in the coming months when he would write his poem, Silent Night, Holy Night.
The Occasion and Inspiration of the Writing of the Poem
Joseph Mohr never recorded any specific event or occasion which inspired him to write his poem, “Silent Night, Holy Night,” but there can no doubt that the times in which he lived and the ministry to which he gave his life would have been an inspirational backdrop to his writing.
I would suggest that this backdrop would be attributed both to being a young, 23 year old assistant priest on his first assignment, ministering to people with little hope in the midst of the most difficult of times, as well as Mohr’s continual reflection and pondering on that first Christmas, when God would enter the mess of humanity to ultimately provide a way of salvation.
The people of Mariapfarr had suffered greatly through 23 years of Napoleonic Wars, having their land and their lives looted and plundered by Bavarian Troops, and then having their Province of Salzburg lose its independence. Daily life was difficult, with little hope for what the future might hold. It was in this setting that the young assistant priest, Joseph Mohr, ministered.
But Mohr’s saw something beyond the horizon of his difficult daily circumstances.
Perhaps the thoughts that would give birth to his poem sprang from his study, for he was an excellent student. But I like to image that the words he would write in 1816, came not only as a result of the post-war times, or careful study of the Scriptures, but also of countless walks at night around Mariapfaff, under the stars, . . . walking to visit his grandfather, or a needy parishioner, . . . walking , . . . reflecting, . . . pondering, . . . that any future hope could only be steeped in a past event. Not what he or his fellow-countrymen would do, but what God had already done, . . . to tell afresh, the story of what God had done at Christmas!
Mohr’s move to St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria
In 1817, Joseph Mohr was moved to his new parish of St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria. Oberndorf, like Mariapfarr, had suffered through the looting and destruction of the Napoleonic Wars. With the Congress of Vienna, the Salzach River that divided Oberndorf from her sister city, Laufen, would become the new border that would now divide Austria and Bavaria. The salt trade, for which this area had been known, never recovered from the years of war. Unemployment and uncertainty would mark the years Mohr would serve at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, from 1817-1819.
In Oberndorf, Mohr would initially serve as the assistant priest to the liberal minded, Father Joseph Kessler. Mohr and Father Kessler were kindred spirits. They arranged masses that were a mix of German and Latin, in which the people could understand much more of what was being said. One response to these changes was the substantial numerical growth by those attending church at St. Nicholas. However, these reforms did not sit well with the “powers-that-be,” and Father Kessler was removed and replaced by Father Georg Heinrich Nostler. Father Nostler was a traditionalist who totally rejected the use of German in any church service.
With major differences of both personality and philosophy of ministry, Mohr and Father Nostler were in constant conflict. In fact, their differences became so great and their relationship so strained, that Father Nostler would falsely accuse Mohr regarding his priestly duties and issued a formal complaint with his superiors. Though Father Nostler could not initially get the parishioners to side against Mohr, eventually he would be reassigned to Kuchl in Septermber, 1819.
Christmas Eve, 1818
Over the years, there have been numerous legends as to the reason that prompted Joseph Mohr to travel to Arnsdorf on Christmas Eve, 1818, to show his friend Franz Gruber the poem he had written some two years earlier and ask him if he would write a melody that he could play on his guitar and they could sing together that very night at Midnight Mass.
Some have speculated that the organ was in disrepair. There is the famous mice nibbling and destroying the organ bellows. But the organ could have easily been damaged by the constant dampness from the periodic flooding of the Salzach River, which did ultimately lead to the relocation of the town center and St. Nicholas Church up the Salzach River to prevent further flooding.
Perhaps it was the thought of not having any music at Christmas Eve Mass for the people of Oberndorf who had endured so much suffering and despair that prompted Mohr. Or perhaps it was that Father Nostler was out of town and Mohr felt the freedom to give the people something special in their own language at Christmas.
Whatever the reason for the prompting, we do know that on Christmas Eve in 1818, Joseph Mohr went to Franz Gruber and asked him to write a melody for the poem Mohr had written two years earlier.
That afternoon, Franz Gruber would compose the tune to go with Mohr’s Poem, "Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!"
Along with the church choir, Mohr and Gruber would gather at the church that evening to learn and practice the newly written song that they would perform that night at midnight.
First Performance of "Silent Night, Holy Night"
Then, that night on Christmas Eve in 1818, at the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, with the church choir standing behind them, Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber sang for the first time, “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Gruber sang bass and Mohr sang tenor and played the guitar to the tune that Gruber had composed that afternoon. On the last two lines of each verse, the choir would join in.
According to Gruber’s account of the event, the first singing of “Silent Night, Holy Night” was met with “general approval by all” of those in attendance that night. Perhaps it was the lovely tune played on a classical guitar, or that the lyrics were in their own language, . . . but however well it was initially received, the people who were in attendance that night would have no idea of the impact that "Silent Night" would have on the rest of the world in the years to follow.
Spreading of Silent Night to the Rest of the World
After its premiere, the historical record is again sketchy as to the next time “Silent Night” was sung and exactly how it spread. There is evidence that “Silent Night” may have been sung even a year later, 1819, in the village of Fugen in the Zillertal Valley.
Two singing families from this area, Rainers and Strassers, are considered the ones who took “Silent Night” beyond the borders of Austria into Europe and eventually the United States. The Rainers toured Europe during the late 1820’s-1830’s, and then on Christmas Day in 1839, they performed “Silent Night” in New York City at Trinity Church’s cemetery. Then, by the turn of the century, missionaries had spread the singing of “Silent Night” to every continent.
Today, during every Christmas Season, “Silent Night” continues to be sung by untold millions all around the globe, in every setting imaginable, from homes to hospitals, from small chapels to great cathedrals.
It’s popularity and mystery continues to grow!
The Mystery of the Carol
Some Personal Theories
Silent Night is for many of us, one of those songs that touch something very deep within us. Music can do that! When we seem to become immune to any hint of reflection because of the constant stimuli of phones and pods and pads, hearing “Silent Night,” with its lullaby melody and hope-filled words can touch something deep down in our souls, . . . the place that longs for hope and peace
- Perhaps the mystery lies in the song reminding us of childhood Christmas memories, of simpler times when life wasn’t so heavy and this time of year was the source of joy, not stress or dread or depression.
- Perhaps it is that even as an adult, hearing the words and melody of the lullaby tune has the same effect that a lullaby has on an infant, . . . a sense of being in a safe place, in the arms of someone who will protect and provide all one needs.
- Or maybe, part of the mystery is that especially as an adult, the song gives a refreshing perspective, . . . that there is a cause for hope, and it is not a hope steeped nor dependent on the goodwill of human nature, but in God becoming a baby, . . . entering the mess of humanity and doing for us what we could never do for ourselves.
- Or perhaps, the mystery is as simple as the tune and lyrics themselves, . . . wherever and whenever we hear or sing it, . . . it gives us a few moments of calm that eclipse the daily chaos that is so much a part of our lives.
Recordings of Silent Night
Through the years, "Silent Night" has been recorded by over 300 artists. Below are just two of my favorites.
This is one of the classic renditions of Holy Night, by one of the greatest singers of all time. Recorded in 1947 and resonating with millions in a post-war era longing for heavenly peace.
Mannheim Steamroller: Stille Nacht
This has become one of my favorite renditions of Silent Night and one that is an agent of reflection like no other. It contains no lyrics, and yet, that might be at the heart of it's powerful lure to pause and ponder the depths of what Christmas is truly about, Emmanuel, "God with us!"
This year, may the Christmas Carol that has touched so many through the years, . . . bring calm to the chaos, . . . perspective in pain, . . . hope in the hectic.