Silent Night

by Eric Van Genderen

This article was originally published in PCJH’s Winter 2022 Pinnacle, “Bursting Into Songs of Joy”

One of the most beautiful songs that is sung at Christmas is “Silent Night.” It’s very origins are humble in nature; thereby only adding to its immense meaning and sentiment for many. For centuries, the tune was attributed to such famous composers as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven; as no original manuscript of the music was in circulation, the song’s actual author could not be identified. 

However, as is more-often-than-not the case, almost accidentally an original manuscript was eventually found, and the author and composer were disclosed to the world. Amazingly, the composer, Franz Xavier Gruber, came from humble beginnings; Gruber was nothing more than a simple schoolteacher who also served as the church organist/choir director in a small Austrian village. The words to ‘Silent Night’ (originally written in their native German language, Stille Nacht’), are attributed to a young Catholic priest, John Mohr. 

Whether, or not, Mohr’s lyrics were actually inspired by walks he regularly took through the wintry Austrian mountainside near his home, his poetic lines depict a magnificent – and vivid – ‘portrait’ of that first Christmas Eve, when our Lord was born. How much further away from the actual birthplace could the authors of the song have lived; and how different the surroundings. Yet, how simple and beautiful the melody; and, how splendid the poetic imagery. Holistically, how warmly ‘Silent Night’ touches our hearts – every year, as it has done throughout the ages. 

On Christmas Eve, 1818, Gruber and Mohr first performed ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’ (Silent Night, Holy Night) for the small congregation at their village’s church. As the church organ was in need of repair, Gruber first wrote the music for guitar. For their debut performance, Gruber played the guitar, while Mohr sang. An organ builder and repairman, working at the church, took a copy of the six-verse song to his home village. 

There, it was picked up and spread by two families of traveling folk singers, who performed around northern Europe. In 1834, the Strasser family performed it for the King of Prussia. In 1839, the Rainer family of singers debuted the carol outside Trinity Church in New York City.  

The composition evolved, and it was translated into over 300 languages, with many different arrangements, for various voices and ensembles. The song has been played and sung in churches, in town squares, even on the battlefield during World War I, when, during a temporary truce  on Christmas Eve, soldiers sang carols from home. “Silent Night,” by 1914, known around the world, was sung, simultaneously, in French, German, and English. 

From humble beginnings, yet, having global impact. For all of the reasons presented within this short essay – and then some – the magnificence of “Silent Night” shall always hold a special place in my heart (Source: The Story Behind The Beloved Christmas Carol “Silent Night”).  

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