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Why ‘Silent Night’ and the stories around it endure 200 years later

A stylized score of "Silent Night." The Christian world is marking the famous hymn’s 200th anniversary this year. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) — It was the night before Christmas, and not a creature was stirring.

Except for the mice at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, who were busy chewing through the bellows of the organ.

Their handiwork left the church’s priest, the Rev. Joseph Mohr, scrambling to find music for a Christmas Eve service. So he dashed off a few lines about the night Jesus was born and asked composer Franz Xaver Gruber to set the lyrics to a simple tune, played on guitar.

On that night 200 years ago, the two stood in front of the church’s nativity set and performed a song that began with words “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.”

Franz Gruber, the composer of “Silent Night,” in a portrait by Sebastian Stief. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Better known as “Silent Night,” the song would go on to become one of the season’s most beloved Christmas carols, translated into more than 300 languages and sung all over the world by artists from Bing Crosby to Beyoncé.

At least, that’s how the story goes.

Legends aside, the song endures in part because it brings a sense of calm to the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, said Brian Lee, head of the music department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

“We seem to live in such a noisy chapter in history,” Lee said. “I think even just the title of the song in and of itself speaks to people.”

In Austria, where “Silent Night” has been declared part of the nation’s cultural heritage, the country’s tourism office has planned a number of events, including concerts and exhibits, to celebrate the song’s anniversary this year. The events included a concert late last month at Trinity Church, a historic Episcopal church in New York City, where it is believed the song first was performed in the United States.

Moody also planned its annual Candlelight Carols program around the song — linking it to the famed Christmas Eve truce during World War I. During that brief respite from fighting, British and German troops set down their weapons and sang “Silent Night,” among other carols.

And modern hymn writers Keith and Kristyn Getty are making the song part of their Irish Christmas Tour, with stops at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.

Singing carols is as old as Christmas itself, Keith Getty noted in an email to Religion News Service. The story of Christmas and the birth of Jesus, he said, begins with Mary, Zechariah, Simeon and angelic choirs all bursting into songs.

But “Silent Night” is unique, he said.

“Its simplicity makes it easily accessible even for kids — both lyric and melody are haunting, unique and yet painfully simple,” Getty said. “If only we had the potion to reinvent that!”

Part of the song’s genius is its simplicity, said Michael Hawn, a global hymnologist and professor emeritus of church music at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. The lyrics and music paint a scene, and it “doesn’t try to do too much,” he said.

Most of the story about its origins is true. But the details don’t quite match the legend.

While “Silent Night” may have been performed for the first time 200 years ago, Mohr had penned the poem a bit earlier, amid a trying time in Austria’s history at the end of the Napoleonic wars.

It’s true the church’s organ wasn’t working properly, though Hawn called the tale about the mice “a little bit over the top.” Using a guitar to accompany the song turned out to be “providential,” he said.

On the guitar, “Silent Night” sounds like a lullaby, according to the hymnologist. Its gentle 6/8 time signature mimicks a mother rocking her child — appropriate alongside lyrics about the baby Jesus sleeping in heavenly peace.

After its debut, it spread as a folk song, said Paul Westermeyer, professor emeritus of church music at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. The Rainer family singers, a traveling singing group from Austria, then brought it to America, performing the song in 1839 at Trinity Church.

Twenty years later, a priest at Trinity, John Freeman Young, published the first English translation of three verses of “Silent Night.” Young had been ordained at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Tallahassee, Fla., and later became bishop of Florida.

A stained-glass window of Joseph Mohr, the author of the “Silent Night” poem, at the Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf, Austria. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Betsy Calhoun, director of music at St. John’s, said the church wasn’t aware of its ties to the origins of “Silent Night” until this past year, when a musicologist researching the 200th anniversary of the song reached out to the church. The church also has ties to another famed Christmas carol: It’s home to the organ on which James L. Pierpont composed “Jingle Bells.”

St. John’s, like many other churches, has ended its Christmas Eve services for years with “Silent Night,” sung a capella by candlelight.

There’s always a tense moment when the lights dim and candle flames drift, and once, Calhoun remembers someone’s hair catching fire during a service.

For countless churchgoers, though, that moment of quiet reflection captures what Christmas is all about — a moment amid the noise of the holidays when all is calm and bright. It’s a moment to gather with family and friends to remember a holy infant so tender and mild.

“It’s just a very hushed, calm, just unified spirit that kind of takes over, and it is very moving,” Calhoun said.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

66 Comments

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  • Silent Night – updated in 2018 with the same music

    Silent night, Silent night!
    All is calm, all is bright
    Round yon mother and child
    An Infant so tender and mild
    Sleep in earthly peace
    Sleep in earthly peace

    [Verse 2]
    Silent night, holy night!
    The night was quiet
    Starlight streamed from the skies above
    On this quiet night
    Another dirt-poor rabbi is born
    Another dirt-poor rabbi is born

    (No need to mention mythical deities to get a good song)

  • Nobody talks about it much, but Christian music (like “Silent Night” and “O Night Divive”) is a very powerful means of destroying Atheism. It’s a very supernatural energy weapon for bringing Atheists, Agnostics, Drunkards, Druggies, and Nones, Haters (and Homosexuals too!) flying high again on Christ’s plane.

    Git the right song, with the right words, with the right situation, and the right anointing, at the right time — hey, maybe your elderly mama or older sister is quietly singing the song right now on her couch — and the toughest man or woman will break down like a baby, wiping the tears from their eyes. They may even swallow their pride, visit a church, and come forward at least for a general prayer of blessing , if not for salvation. Anything can happen.

    (And remember, one prayer leads to another!!! )

  • You realize that you are talking about a song which Church, Incorporated does not own, right? The right song, with the right words, in the right situation, with the right anointing, at the right time, happens to mean anybody and everybody can define those conditions, and define the results therefrom. In other seasons of the year, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” works the same way, as does “Kumbaya”.

  • I happen to like Peter, Paul and Mary’s Hanukah song “Light One Candle”! That is my favorite song of the season. It really gets your blood pumping, and your feet tapping, and your heart soaring!

    Mr. Lee doesn’t realize that people can enjoy music without feeling inclined to buy into the religion. I also love Handel’s Messiah, and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio as well as San Saens Christimas Oratorio and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas and Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, and Frosty the Snowman! And don’t forget “I hear those sleighbells ringling, jing, jingling …..or Jingle Bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way!

    Lots of great music this time of year.

  • “That is my favorite song of the season.”

    Light one candle for the Maccabee children
    With thanks that their light didn’t die
    Light one candle for the pain they endured
    When their right to exist was denied
    Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice
    Justice and freedom demand
    But light one candle for the wisdom to know
    When the peacemaker’s time is at hand.

    Refrain
    Don’t let the light go out!
    It’s lasted for so many years!
    Don’t let the light go out!
    Let it shine through our hope and our tears.

    Light one candle for the strength that we need
    To never become our own foe
    And light one candle for those who are suffering
    Pain we learned so long ago
    Light one candle for all we believe in
    That anger not tear us apart
    And light one candle to find us together
    With peace as the song in our hearts.

    Refrain

    So, what season are you talking about? The birth of Noel Paul Stookey on December 30, 1937?

  • I didn’t even know what a Gregorian Chant was, until a high school friend played a couple songs from a monastery choir on an old record player back in 1976. He asked me what I thought of them.

    I told him they could probably use a space-rock synthesizer, but otherwise they had a really memorable, 99% otherworldly sound. Were they singing to God, or praying to God? It seemed like a potent mixture of both.

    No frills, no guitars, no Top-40 Bubblegum Trash. Just simple, medieval, harmonic voices…and God.

  • Christmas in America has removed Christ. Carols never mention Christ and the Tree has replaced the Crib. “happy Holidays” is meaningless. We are celebrating the birth of Christ, not a Holiday. Odd thing about Christmas is the birthday baby never gets a present. Instead everyone else does.
    if not for the 3 wise men, who are of other faiths, Christ would not have got one single present. I wonder if giving presents on Birthdays was a non European practice.

  • Yep, that’s a flat-out Hanukkah song. (Thanks Mark, for posting the lyrics.) In fact, thanks to various friends and teachers in the high-school music scene, the Top-40 Bubblegum Radio, and the holiday TV specials, I pretty much listened to every gig you mentioned, as a teenager.

    But Peter Paul & Mary aside, YOU done messed up Susan. By your own admission, you voluntarily listened to JS Bach music. I forgot which one, but a Christianity Today writer said he knew of THREE atheists who wound up giving their lives to Jesus Christ after listening to Bach’s music. That’s right. Just that one mistake. They tried to be cute, and listened to Bach’s gigs. Boom — scratch 3 more atheists clean off the list!!

    And THEN, you went off the deep end and listened to the entire Handel gig? Are you kidding me? Number Four on the Scratch List coming up soon. You honestly don’t have to give up listening to “Light One Candle”, but you might as well go talk to the Jewish Messiah right now, and Get It Over With !!

  • Some classical composers actually wrote musical settings for the Mass and others used the Mass as an art form. I’m pretty sure that there are millions of atheists and members of other faiths who have listened to these pieces of music strictly for their musicality and never once entertained the thought of becoming Christian.

  • I think it wasn’t so much a birthday present as a display of homage — one did not come before a king without a gift.

  • Perhaps because every kid was forced to sing the song from birth in every school, etc. so, of course it remains popular. I think it is a very boring song.

  • Mark Silk lifted your banishment?

    I guess you don’t have answer or you would have provided it in lieu of some snark.

  • And many more millions who never listened to these pieces of music and never once entertained the thought of adult consideration of their ill-supported positions.

  • You do realize mark that Jesus wasn’t born on Dec. 25th. He was a Vernal Exuinox baby not a solstice child!

  • one can never “mess up” listening to Classical Music Floyd. You simply ignore the lyrics of the choral pieces. I also love Wagner and that hasn’t turned me into a Nazi. such foolishness on your part.

  • That’s your answer to:

    “So, what season are you talking about? The birth of Noel Paul Stookey on December 30, 1937?”?

  • The word, “church,” appears 15 time in this article, so it should be noted that church CHURCH is where people go to hear
    Christian Hallucinations Unabashedly Reinforced by Christian Hucksters.

  • It’s OK. The Yule log, tree and celebration at that time of year predated Christianity. Jesus was inserted into that holiday. The presents were probably pre Christian as well.

    Happy Holidays is simply acknowledging that we are not uniformly Christian as a society, nor expected to be. Being polite to others apparently is the worst thing in the world for you.

  • The most famous rendition of Silent Night is for my money from 12/24/1914. In the first winter of The Great War, both sides on the Western Front were sitting behind massive trench lines.

    German soldiers broke out into singing in the middle of the night followed by largely British adversaries doing the same. The next morning an unofficial and very tenuous truce was made between soldiers on both sides. There was even an ad hoc soccer game between opposing soldiers.

    This truce would never be repeated in that war ever again or modern warfare in general.

  • A mother singing to a child is universal. Therefore many can love the song without being Christian. The reference to the joy and glory can and is an apt expression of a parent’s joy in a child’s birth. No Christian bellef needed.

  • re you thinking of, among others, Leonard Bernstein. He was a friend of my Christian aunt. He was certainly not Christian.

  • Yikes, this is so weirdly untrue. What is true is that many brought up Christian are no longer Christian, many not wanting to be associated with the small minded US version of Christianity.

  • What? You think Wagner can save you from Jesus? Heh!

    Don’t you know that ole Wag wrote “Jesus of Nazareth” before he wrote the pagan “Ring” mess?

    And even though Wagner got confused (he thought Jesus was a Greek man, he embraced Anti-semitism, and of course he bought into Nietzsche), his “Parsifal” at least was a baby step in the right direction.

  • I am Catholic and Christmas is solidly embedded into my mind as the day of Christ’s birth and I celebrate it as such. Coming to America the shocker was that Christ is not part of Christmas, Rudolph the red nosed reindeer as a larger role.

  • December 25 is the day given for the birth of Jesus Christ. It is faith it is tradition. it is Christian.

  • I can see the Francisence, Myrrh and gold as homage and as gifts especially since one of the Wise men came from India.

  • I watched the youtube. That hit the nail on the head. when you say “English influence” you must mean Protestantism. English are far more christian during Christmas than we are.

  • Tradition taken from appropriation of pre-christian festivities beginning in the 3rd Century. Essentially the Roman Empire(s) declaring it so.

  • I watched the first one but not the 2nd. Now I watched the 2nd and I like “silent night’ that good old German Christmas hymn.
    I do not want to know of anything about Christ’s future 33 years later. Only that he was born.

  • That is what Traditions and customs are. None are pure and who wants to analyse what part of Christmas came from Rome, Germans, English,
    I mean one of the Wise men was a Hindu King. want to include a touch of Hinduism?

  • In the public milieu, of course.

    Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was an advertising piece for the now defunct Montgomery Ward department stores:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudolph_the_Red-Nosed_Reindeer#Publication_history

    In America’s churches, however, in Advent and Christmas Jesus remains central.

    For a totally secular view of the holiday, Japan wins the prize:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_traditions#Japan

    as Japanese line up at Kentucky Fried Chicken for their traditional Christmas fried chicken feast.

  • “In America’s churches, however, in Advent and Christmas Jesus remains central”
    And that is part of the problem. In America God has been “contained’ in the church. In Europe God is everywhere and part of the living culture.
    One reason how Americans measure Christianity is church attendance. Low church attendance translates to a drop in the faithful. That maybe true in America were Christ is held within Church walls but in Europe where Christ defined European culture for 2 thousand years Christ and Christianity is in the everyday life of Europeans. It pervades towns. It is in the custom and everyday traditions. For example America does not have a culture of pilgrimages, Europe does. and the Church is a part of Christianity, not all of it. From processions, festivals, a plethora of holidays and celebrations around Saints and martyrs takes Christianity into every part of a town. Christ is free in Europe.

  • “In America God has been ‘contained’ in the church.”

    Part of that is a result of the First Amendment, but more importantly since WWII the spinning of the First Amendment into something that was never intended in an effort to ban religion from the Public Square.

    Read the comments here and you’ll encounter the proponents of that spin on history.

    However, your experience will vary across the USA.

    In the Southwest a significant Catholic impact keeps religious displays, parades, and observances highly visible.

    In the South even postal employees wish patrons “Merry Christmas” and Jesus is prominently displayed.

    In the Lutheran Midwest folks unashamedly put up public Advent wreaths and choral performances.

  • Even in the South religion is being snuffed out of daily life and public expression. That includes Catholic based New Orleans. Lived across America including Hawaii.Also lived in Sri Lanka which is ranked as one of the most religious nations on the planet.
    Right now I am doing an article for Quora regarding Adam’s Peak. That mountain in Sri Lanka is famous through the ages and has found its name in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, including ancient epics and literature. Mentioned by ancient Greeks and is on Ptolemy’s map, and whose name comes up even in medieval Europe. It has also produced iconic art and the Goddess of that mountain is “Samantha”. Could you believe that? Fascinating stuff.

  • Explain why you say so. Give examples to support that religion, especially Christianity is alive in the daily life and in public, in the South. We maybe seeing the same thing but at different angles.

  • Some examples I can give are no signs of the Cross or the holy family in public. No processions celebrating a Christian saint, even common greetings done in public Christ is carefully avoided both in language and in writing, as in greeting cards. Some front yard may show a nativity scene, but comparing America to Europe or to Sri Lanka, religion is dead in public places in America.
    As for your response there was no need to get defensive on a subject as easy as Christianity discussed with another Christian. That alone shows your reticence to open up to Christianity in a public forum.

  • No, it shows that there are limits to informal discussion in fora like this one.

    Your interpretation of the response as “defensive” is your problem, not mine.

  • Did not limit me whatsoever. Free speech should not limit discussion of religion when we can openly discuss pornography and other sinful acts. You simply became defensive on a subject that is clearly open for discussion

  • Mark
    You did not have anything to back your comment, especially when I had no problem in giving examples to back mine. now all you are doing is evading the fact that you never had any examples to back your comment. Evasion is no solution.

  • Mark
    Do you really have to ask me? Go right ahead and block me but it is you who challenged my comment and then refused to back it up. This is elementary especially when I had no problem giving examples. You are offended that I clearly pointed that out to you. You feel uncomfortable when my comment was not offensive at all.

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