History of Silent Night (or how to annoy your brother)

Each Christmas presented an awesome way to annoy my older brother.

That I did so during church on Christmas every year didn’t matter.  In my heart, God has a sense of humor and I figured He was laughing along with me.

First off let me say the church I attend now, (Christ Church) rocks. Figuratively and literally. Besides the fountain of  Living Water that greets everyone as they come in, we’ve an amazing worship team and  Pastor John has a gift of stimulating the mind and the heart.  Currently he is teaching us about the history behind famous carols. Being a history geek myself I thought I’d polish up this old blog post and start not being a hermit to my fans as I have been of late.

My brother’s glare of warning every Christmas Eve when it came time to sing “Silent Night” could light brimstone. That glare was my cue, and he knew what was coming the instant the lights dimmed throughout the church. During high school I spoke German, and, being a teen and the annoying younger sister that I was, I thought it hip to sing “Silent Night” in its original language solely to bother my brother.

But that story is not my point, fun as it is to remember.

Christmas brings many creative stories about how this timeless carol was created. One being that a mouse munching the bellows of an organ forced the need for Joseph Mohr, a young priest assigned to a pilgrimage church in Mariapfarr, Austria, to compose something in haste in order to sing at the Midnight Mass. That story has more versions than can be counted at this point! It’s been sensationalized through the years in film and books, but the reality of this hymn is humble in its origins.

Yes, it’s a mouse riding a lobster but at least it’s from a Victorian Christmas card. Victorians had a thing for natural history and YOU try finding a picture of a mouse eating organ bellows…

“Silent Night” was written by Joseph Mohr in 1816; however it wasn’t until Christmas Eve of 1818, when Mohr visited the home of Franz Gruber, a primary school teacher and church organist, that it came into being as a carol. Mohr showed his friend the poem and simply asked him to write a melody for it for two solo voices, a choir, and guitar accompaniment.  Mohr liked what Gruber wrote and later that night, December 24th, the first stanzas of “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” were heard. Gruber’s personal account of how the carol was written doesn’t mention Mohr’s specifics for inspiration, but one supposition is that the church organ was no longer working forcing Mohr’s need for it to be written for guitar (some legends claim it was mice eating the organ, other claim rust on the pipes).

However a broken organ does tie into the tale by some accounts, as master organ builder Karl Mauracher worked at Mohr’s church several times over the years. While there, it’s possible Mauracher obtained a copy of the composition and took it away him. As a result the simple carol began its journey around the world in the hands of an organ builder and ultimately ended up into a church songbook prepared by Blasius Wimmer.

Many carols (as learned in church recently) were composed during troubled times. “Do You Hear What I Hear,” during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis and “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” when Christmas was illegal in the United States. “Silent Night” was no different. It was created and first performed after the Napoleonic Wars. The Congress of Vienna had created new borders and a new order for Europe. Salzburg, Austria suffered greatly during this time having to secularize due to losing its status as an independent country. In 1816, at the time Mohr penned “Silent Night,” its lands were divided between Bavaria and Austria. The local economy in Oberndorf by Salzburg suffered, causing a depression and forcing many into unemployment. Mohr was in Oberndorf at this time.  Witnessing these events his wrote “Silent Night” and penned the 4th verse as a plea for peace:

Silent night! Holy night!; Where on this day all power; of fatherly love poured forth; And like a brother lovingly embraced; Jesus the peoples of the world; Jesus the peoples of the world. (translated from the original)

The melody changed over the years. In December of 1822 the Rainer Family Singers performed the song at the Castle of Count Donhoff for Emperor Franz I and Tsar Alexander I of Russia.  Several musical notes were changed at this concert and the carol evolved into the melody we now know. By 1839 “Silent Night” was performed for the first time in America at the Alexander Hamilton Monument outside Trinity Church in New York City.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Without doubt it will be performed this holiday season in churches across the country and most likely sung in English… unless I happen to be home at the same time as my brother.

Old habits die hard.

Ein frohes Weihnachtsfest und alles Gute zum neuen Jahr!


One Response to History of Silent Night (or how to annoy your brother)

  • One of my favorite Hymns. Thanks to you and your Pastor for inspiring you to write this beautiful and important lesson in history.

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