Two hundred years ago this Christmas Eve, the beloved Christmas carol “Silent Night” was sung for the first time in St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, a small village northwest of Salzburg. Try to imagine the scene: a snowy night, a cold church lit by candles, a congregation of poor farmers and laborers in the middle of a severe economic depression, the lingering smell of incense from the mass. The silence is broken by the sound of a guitar followed by two voices singing in harmony and then joined by a small choir. A simple beginning for a carol that would symbolize Christmas for millions over two centuries.
There are many versions of how “Silent Night” was created, but the common thread is that it was first created in 1816 as a poem written by 26-year-old Fr. Joseph Mohr, who was serving as an assistant priest at a church in Lungau, Austria. The poem was most likely written as Mohr’s way of consoling his congregation during the hard times following the collapse of the local salt mining industry at the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. Two years would pass before the poem would be set to music.
In 1817, Fr. Mohr was transferred to serve as an assistant priest in the newly established parish of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf. It was here that he met a 31-year-old schoolteacher, Franz Xavier Gruber, who was also organist at St. Nicholas. The two would work closely for the next few years. Early on the afternoon of December 24, 1818, Fr, Mohr approached Gruber at his schoolhouse with the poem he had written in 1816 and asked him to set it to music to perform that night.
Fr. Mohr told Gruber that he wanted a simple setting that could be sung in two-part harmony with guitar accompaniment during that evening’s Christmas Mass. So Gruber worked that afternoon at his desk in the schoolhouse and quickly set the poem to music. Mohr was pleased with the results, and that evening the song was performed for the first time with Gruber singing bass and Mohr singing tenor and playing the guitar. The church choir also took part. According to Gruber, the song was met with “general approval by all,” though he would later characterize the melody as merely “a simple composition.” Unfortunately, the original manuscript written on that Christmas Eve of 1818 was lost. In the early 1900s St. Nicholas Church was demolished after a fire, but a small ““Silent Night” Chapel” now stands on the site.
We all have memories associated with “Silent Night”. I have some I’d like to share with you. The first takes place in 1956. I was nine years old and attending St. Joseph’s School in Spring Valley, New York. Joining Sister Luke’s 4th grade class that fall was young Michael, the son of a German couple who had recently immigrated to the U.S. Michael spoke very good English but felt a bit out of place among his classmates. Sr. Luke came up with a very clever idea…she would have Michael teach us the original German words to “Silent Night”. We were soon given a mimeographed page with the original German words printed in blue type. I still remember the first verse:
Alles schlaft; einsam wacht!
Nur das traute heilege Par.
Holder Knab im lockigten Haar,
Schlafe in himmlishher Ruh!
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
The plan worked and Michael soon had many new friends, although he never could get us to develop his enthusiasm for playing soccer!
As I was reading about the 1914 World War I Christmas truce, I realized that the words Michael had taught us in 1956 were the same words the British soldiers heard on that 1914 Christmas Eve drifting across “No Man’s Land” from the German trenches.
Fast-forward to 1985. My wife and I planned on attending the 5 p.m. Christmas Eve service in the church where we were married, All Saints, in Bay Head, New Jersey. That afternoon we got a phone call from a dear friend of ours, Helen. She was a very sharp 92 years old but unable to drive anymore. She asked us if we would mind picking her up and bringing her to the service with us. Of course we said “yes.”
The church was cold. It was decorated with evergreens, and at the end of each pew was a small wreath and a glass sconce that held a lit candle. Before the mass began, the organist and choir always led the congregation in a 30-minute round of carol singing…to warm us up! But first, the priest announced, the children of the congregation would walk up the aisle in procession, each bearing a figure that would be placed in the crèche near the altar. “The children will be singing “Silent Night”, and we ask that you not sing along with them so the sound of the children can fill the church.” As they began to sing and walk down the aisle, Helen began to sing along with them. The sound of the children’s tiny voices blending with Helen’s thin, frail voice singing “Silent Night” produced a sound that I can still hear in my head. We all had smiles on our faces and a few tears in our eyes.
After the service ended, we drove Helen home, gave her a hug and wished her a Merry Christmas. She told us how thankful she was that we brought her along. Her joy helped to make that Christmas a very special one for us. Three weeks later, Helen passed away in her sleep at home. That Christmas Eve was probably the last time she ever sang “Silent Night”.
While watching the funeral services for President George H. W. Bush, we also learned that in his final days he had been visited by the Irish tenor Roland Tynan. Bush asked if he would sing “Silent Night”, knowing that it would probably be the last time he heard it.
All of us who celebrate Christmas have happy and bittersweet memories associated with “Silent Night”. This Christmas, try to remember the happy ones and the good times. Think about that first “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve in Oberndorf, Austria, in 1818 in that cold, candle-lit church and imagine what it was like to hear the carol accompanied by a guitar and those two voices. Go outside into the “Silent Night” and look up at the sky and take joy in how the simplest gifts are often the most beautiful…and enduring. Merry Christmas!