Every Christmas Eve, outside a small chapel in Oberndorf, a picture-postcard village in the foothills of the Austrian Alps, thousands of carolers bundle up against the cold to sing the world’s most-beloved Christmas carol. Amid sparkling lights, and a star-filled sky, two men strumming a guitar, stand in front of the chapel to sing,
“Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, Alles schläft, Eynsam wacht”
reenacting how this beloved carol was introduced for the first time. They invite a choir from around the globe to sing along in countless other languages. Tonight marks the 200th anniversary of singing Silent Night.
Josef Mohr, who wrote the poem in 1816, was born out of wedlock in Salzburg in 1792, the son of a seamstress & an army musketeer, who later took off and abandoned responsibility. Because Josef was considered illegitimate, it was difficult to find godparents to baptize him. Only the town hangman agreed. But as he was baptized in the same font as Mozart, he had auspicious start. As a young boy, he sang as an Austrian cathedral chorister, and later was ordained a Catholic priest.
As a young priest, he was assigned to the newly established parish of St Nicholas, in Oberndorf, where he discovered the church’s organ wasn’t functioning properly, and Christmas Eve mass was around the corner – some say even that very night. There are tales about mice eating their way through the bellows which has even been made into a children’s book; but the more likely culprit was water damage from frequent flooding. To provide alternative music, Mohr picked up a poem he’d written two years prior and enlisted the help of Franz Gruber, an Austrian organist. Sources say:
“It was on December 24, 1818 that the assistant priest Josef Mohr at the newly established St. Nicolas parish in Oberndorf handed a poem over to substitute organist Franz Gruber, requesting a fitting melody on short notice for the Christmas Eve Mass, for 2 solo voices, with guitar accompaniment.”
Because guitar was not an approved church instrument, they had to perform the song AFTER Mass, so they sang it in a ceremony following Midnight Mass with Mohr singing tenor, strumming along on guitar, and Gruber singing bass.
Silent Night was almost forgotten despite the positive reception it received that night. Thankfully, Karl Mauracher, an organ builder, came to repair the organ. He took a copy of the manuscript and shared it with a few others in Tyrol. It struck a deep chord, and began to spread as a folk song. The Tyrolese had a tradition of choirs singing their way through German towns to make $, akin to the Von Trapp family in “The Sound of Music.” The Rainer singers sang Silent Night throughout Europe & brought it to America in 1839, singing at Trinity Church in NY. 20 years later, a priest at Trinity, John Freeman Young, published the 1st English translation, which is the translation we continue to use today. By 1900, “Silent Night” had been sung on all continents and translated into 300 languages.
The song became a beloved carol and a fixture of Christmas Eve worship. But its creator Joseph Mohr did not live long enough to see how poignant and significant his poem would become as he died in 1848. Deeply committed to social issues, he lived a simple life, and died in poverty at age 54, after giving away what little he had to the poor. He could not have known how these words put to a simple melody would inspire moments of peace, if only fleetingly. On the Western Front in 1914, during World War I, 100 years ago – French, British & German soldiers on the Flanders front laid down their weapons to join in solidarity on Christmas Eve, by lifting their voices together singing “Silent Night”. Heavenly peace broke out unexpectedly, momentarily – a spontaneous “Christmas Truce” lasting into the Christmas day. Perhaps it is only Love’s Pure Light that can make soldiers come out of fox holes to become a choir singing Silent Night & play soccer together when they’re in the middle of waging war.
Throughout history we continue to experience the worst humanity has to offer AND by the grace of God coming close to earth with the incarnation of a baby born 2000 years ago, and through the creative expression of the arts, we experience the best humanity has to offer. 202 years ago, Josef Mohr penned the poem of Stille Nacht, which some say was inspired to provide a balm and help counter the horrors surrounding him as a young priest, amid a trying time in Austria’s history. Times had been bad in Oberndorf, where many people who worked on the water, manning the salt barges on the Salzach River, lost their jobs. The upheaval in central Europe caused by the Napoleonic Wars, raging from 1803 – 1815, were coming to an end. The dark summer of 1816 — later blamed on ash from a volcanic eruption in Indonesia — had triggered climate change across Europe causing a summer filled with rain & snow, destroying crops and bringing a famine. Many people couldn’t afford to eat and were sending their children to other countries to find work.
There is a juxtaposition between the ethereal words and simple music of Silent Night, and living with the news and the realities that confront us every day. 50 plus years ago, two different men, strumming a guitar, recorded a rendition of Silent Night. In that version, the carol is sung over the background of a grim 1960s newscast. Their names are Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel. Imagine singing Silent Night while holding the tension of the news of the 1960’s. Here are just some snippets of evening news in that recording:
The recent fight in the House of Representatives was over the open housing Section of the Civil Rights Bill bringing traditional enemies together but without the votes of their strongest supporters. President Johnson originally proposed an outright ban covering discrimination but it had no chance from the start, and everyone in Congress knew it. A compromise was painfully worked out in the House Judiciary Committee.Dr. Martin Luther King says he does not intend to cancel plans for an open housing march into the Chicago suburb of Cicero. The County Sheriff asked King to call off the march and said the National Guard to be called out if it was held.Former Vice-President Richard Nixon says that unless there is a substantial increase in the present war effort in Vietnam, the U.S. should look forward to 5 more years of war.That’s the 7 o’clock edition of the news. Goodnight,
The juxtaposition between Silent Night & the evening news is powerful and poignant. As we sing this carol on the 200th anniversary of its first debut, we need to remember the different tensions and juxtapositions we hold as people of faith. The original context for the inspiration of writing Silent Night was modern-day Palestine, a country occupied by Roman forces. Mary & Joseph’s journey to an insignificant village outside of Jerusalem was forced by the census that was required by Roman authorities. It made no difference that she was pregnant. Lodging was denied them several times until they were given shelter in a smelly, dirty stable, hardly the place to give birth to a child. We remember that the Holy Family sought refuge in a foreign country within a few years of Christ’s birth because their lives were in danger. Yet, at that moment of history the Divine intervened in the presence of God in human form. We sing “Silent Night” today not as an escape, but in hope and solidarity as people of faith who continue to hold the tensions that surround us everyday – millions who live in poverty, political oppression, and those who must forcibly migrate in order to survive.
As only music can do, “Silent Night” takes us to different places & times in our lives. It’s one of those pieces of music that can transport us to a place of encountering the divine, as the Holy reaches to our deepest, inner core. May this simple melody and message of peace continue to resonate with us, as we put our weapons down, and worship Christ – the Savior who is born into our hearts tonight.