Silent Night is one of the best known Christmas carols. From children’s choirs to Celine Dion, from classical arrangements to pop versions, this hymn has embedded itself into our holiday traditions and vernacular. Beginning as a poem penned by an Austrian priest in 1816, the simple but powerful song is now sung around the world in over 300 different languages.
History of the Hymn
Josef Mohr served as the pastor at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, a village near Salzburg, Austria. It was the night of December 23, 1818. After attending a Christmas program, Mohr trudged home up a hill that overlooked the town. Pausing at the top, Mohr admired to wintery beauty as he breathed in the chill air. Stillness settled around him. The Christmas play he had just watched reminded Mohr of a poem he had written a couple years before.
Just that week, the St. Nicholas Church organ had broken. Tomorrow night was Christmas Eve, and Mohr and the organist, Franz Xavier Gruber, needed to come up with music for the Midnight Mass. As Mohr stood on the hill on December 23rd, he pondered the words of his poem. It could make a good carol for his congregation on Christmas Eve. Early the next day, Mohr met with Gruber to go over the hymn and write a melody for a guitar.
Working quickly, Gruber composed a simple score to play for Midnight Mass. That night, the small Oberndorf congregation heard Mohr and Gruber play Silent Night. The carol spread like wildfire across northern Europe. In 1834, singers performed Silent Night for King Frederick William IV of Prussia. The king then ordered his cathedral choir to sing the carol every Christmas Eve. In 1838, the hymn made its way to the United States, at New York City’s Trinity Church. Today, it remains the most famous and internationally recognized Christmas carols.
Musicality of the Hymn
The original score of Silent Night contains a few note variations from modern compositions and a faster rhythm. The lyrics themselves have changed, as is expected when translating from one language to another.
The first musical changes occured in the 1830s. Two traveling families of folk singers from the Ziller Valley, the Strassers and the Rainers, brought the song to fellow Austrians. During this time, the carol evolved into the melody we’re familiar with today. It was the second group, the Rainer family, that carried Silent Night to America. They performed in 1839 outside Trinity Church at the Alexander Hamilton Monument.
Just as there are hundreds of translations, so there are thousands of arrangements for Silent Night. Some are quite the spectacle — watch this arrangement by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir — while others are quite simple. No one truly sings the original accompaniment, as that was lost and we only have a composition from Josef Mohr and a few subsequent melodies from Franz Gruber. These arrangements include extra notes and timing differences, which is understandable given the original language.
Interestingly, for a time people believed Silent Night was the work of Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven. Josef Mohr had died by the time the carol became famous across Europe, and the Berlin authorities disregarded Gruber’s letter claiming he was the composer. This misplaced credit continued into the 20th century. Only in 1994 did historians put the controversy to rest when they discovered the long-lost arrangement of Silent Night in the hand of Josef Mohr. On the document, Mohr had penned in the upper righthand corner, “Melodie von Fr. Xav. Gruber.”
Theology of the Hymn
The title of Silent Night is not based on any expressed detail of the biblical narrative; we are never told that the night of Jesus’ birth was silent. In fact, ample evidence exists to the contrary. Childbirth is rarely a quiet affair and newborn infants often cry when not sleeping or nursing. Now, sheep might not make a lot of noise at night, but I am certain that a “great company of the heavenly host” proclaiming “glory to God in the highest” and declaring the coming of the Savior flooded the countryside with light and song.
So, why did Mohr entitled the hymn ‘Silent Night’?
We find a clue regarding the author’s intent in the second phrase, “Heilige Nacht” (holy night). In the presence of holiness, we often observe the reign of awed silence.
Imagine that moment when you reach the end of a strenuous hike and stand surrounded by the living creatures, and yet, everything seems quiet and peaceful, even the thundering waterfall before you.
Or those few minutes when you push back your chair from the table, spread with a lovely Thanksgiving feast, and pause to survey your family and friends. The laughter and chatter and clatter of utensils and plates, the smell of roast turkey and pumpkin pie–it all grows dim, and you sit, content and intensely joyful, in a tranquil silence.
“The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.”Habakkuk 2:20
A Different Response
Thus, Mohr writes, ‘Silent Night, Holy Night.’ The silence stems from the very sacred nature of the event. Jesus’ birth was holy, the night set apart from all other nights because for the first–and last–time in history, the Divine became a human child, born of a virgin and wrapped in swaddling clothes. Emmanuel, God with us, the Word incarnate. Such a scene requires awe, humility, adoration, and… silence.
A silence that gives birth to reflection and meditation. Not empty meditation, but meditation replete with meaning and fullness. In fact, the last two stanzas often omitted nowadays, reveal why that night brings silence and peace:
O Come, All Ye Faithful responds to the birth of Jesus by calling all believers to join in humble adoration of the Messiah. Silent Night responds in quiet, almost solemn, reflection upon the goodness, greatness, and tender mercy and love of God, who fulfills all his promises in due time, even a promise that requires the forsaking and dying of his own Son to save a wandering, sinful people for himself.
It took thousands of years, but the prophecy and promise to Abraham were finally fulfilled. Through Christ, the seed of Abraham’s offspring, all nations of the earth are blessed.
As we go full-throttle into our Christmas celebrations, our lives are anything but silent. Whether we are listening to choirs belt Angels From the Realms of Glory or hear the cacophony of crowds in the mall or the joyful cries of children opening their presents, Christmas is not silent.
What if we took a moment to retreat from the commotion? Or what if we allowed ourselves to consider the mystery of the Incarnation? Or what if we imagine joining the shepherds before the heavenly chorus, or kneeling before the Messiah?
Perhaps we would then realize the whole weight of the prophet’s call to silence: “The Lord is in his holy [feeding trough]; let all the earth be silent before him,” with awestruck wonder and humble worship.