Happy 200th Birthday to the Most Popular Christmas Song in the World: “Silent Night”

Over two billion people will celebrate Christmas Eve tonight.  They will gather with family, loved ones and friends around brightly lit trees amongst decorations, delicious food, and the other sweet smells and sounds of Christmas to celebrate the birth, life, and teachings of Jesus Christ.  For many, the celebration of Jesus is also the time of year that they best celebrate each other.  The miles that once seemed too far and  phone calls that were too few are forgotten as people cherish the meaningful time spent with the ones they love the most.

Music is an integral part of our celebrations as well.  Age gaps and past disagreements are forgotten when a family joins in singing and or listening to the songs that remind us of our fond memories of Christmas past and our hopes for Christmas future.  There is perhaps no Christmas song that evokes the warm glance of a loved one as “Silent Night.”

“Silent Night” was first performed December 24, 1818 at a church in Oberndorf, Austria.  Tonight while we celebrate Christmas, we should also recognize that this classic is celebrating it’s 200th birthday.

The young Priest at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf was Joseph Mohr, who was born to an unwed mother in 1792.  His father was a war mercenary who deserted his mother while she was pregnant.  Joseph was her third child out of wedlock.  His Godfather was the last executioner of Salzburg, who didn’t even show up for the baptism.  Eventually, he was taken as a foster child by the local cathederal’s curate.  As he grew older he showed a talent and passion for music.  He was first ordained to the priesthood in 1815, and assigned his first post in Oberndorf.

On Christmas eve, 1818,  26 year old Mohr had a problem.  He was supposed to officiate mass that night, but the church organ would not play.  Legend has it that it was too damaged from either flooding or that hungry mice.  Either way, it was unplayable and the chances of getting it fixed in time for mass that night were slim.

Mohr then remembered a poem he had written two years earlier that he titled, “Still Nachte.”  The poem was about the night that shepherds announced the coming arrival of their long awaited Messiah, Jesus.  Father Mohr took the poem to the church organist Franz Xaver Gruber, and told him that he needed musical arrangement for the poem….that night!  Gruber was a local schoolteacher who developed a love for music while growing up in a family of weavers who struggled to survive every year.  Within hours, he returned to Mohr an arrangement of the song to be sung by two people with guitar accompaniment.  They performed it together that night, and it was well received from the tiny congregation.

The Silent Night Chapel now stands were the St. Nicholas Church once did in Oberndorf
Photo Credit: National Catholic Reporter

A few weeks later a highly regarded organ builder named Karl Mauracher came to the church.  After fixing the organ, Mohr and Gruber played “Silent Night” for him.  He was blown away, and took copies of the song to give it to two prominent families from the Alpine village of Kapfing.  The families were traveling singers, named the Strassers and the Rainiers. (Think “Sound of Music”)  In the next few years, each of the families made “Silent Night” part of their repertoire.  The song gained more popularity with every performance.  In 1838, the Strassers performed it for an audience that included Russian Tsar Alexander I and Emperor Franz I of Austria.  They loved it, so more and more churches began adding it at the request of the royalty.   In 1839 the Rainiers performed it for the first time in America, outside an Alexander Hamilton monument in New York City.  It was first translated into English in 1859.  By the late 1800s “Silent Night” was fast becoming a Christmas tradition all over the world.

Silent Night original lyric sheet
Photo Credit: Soundscapes

The song is also credited with helping to bring about the “Christmas truce” of World War One in 1914.  German and French Soldiers began singing it together on Christmas eve from opposite trenches that had been shooting at each other just hours before.  They continued to sing other carols before meeting in “No man’s land” to exchange gifts and play soccer together.

Fast forward 200 years since that first night, and “Silent Night” is considered to be the most popular Christmas song of all time.  Time Magazine reported that since 1978, it is by far the most recorded Christmas song in America, beating the second place finisher “Joy to the World” by two to one.  The BBC reported similar numbers in Europe.  Of the top ten selling Christmas albums of all time, seven of them feature “Silent Night.”  It has been translated in over 300 languages.  When you hear “Silent Night” tonight, you can be assured that you are joining listeners in every corner of the world.

Why is the song so popular? Who can say for certain, but I have my thoughts.  The “Silent” represents a lack of war, violence, strife, anger, etc. that we all grow weary of.  It brings with it a message of a better world where we see the our shared vision of a kinder world is possible 365 days a year.  Music so often breaks down the barriers that we struggle to find ways together to overcome, and that is exactly what “Silent Night” does.   The song resonates because it speaks to a hope for “heavenly peace” that is sought by old and young, men and women, rich and poor.  Let us not forget that it  was written and arranged by two men that grew up in a war torn region amongst extreme hunger, poverty and instability.  Their song was a message to all who face obstacles, setbacks, and challenges: Tomorrow can be better…..for all of us.

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