Why Was the Night So Silent?

Songs.  Christmas songs.  Discussing Christmas songs was part of the spark that started the Yule Log 365.  Natalie and I have had hours and hours of discussions about Christmas songs.  Talk on which version is best, which is awful, and who should and more importantly shouldn’t ever again record Christmas songs.  All well and good, but very little of our discussions ever centered on the origins of the song or how it came to be.  Taking a closer look at Jingle Bells last week reminded me of how interesting it is to look into the song’s origin story.  So let’s get to the roots of another classic, Silent Night.

Silent Night was born in 1818 in Austria.  One version of its origins starts in late in December of that year.  A group of performers was traveling through the Alps.  They arrived in Oberndorf to perform a recreation of Christ’s birth, but the church organ was out of service.  With no organ the actors opted to present their show in a private home.  One member of the audience was Father Josef Mohr, an assistant to the pastor.  The play put Mohr in a reflective mood and he took the scenic route home, up to the hills overlooking the village.  He gazed down at the quiet snow-covered village.  It was like a scene in a modern-day Christmas card.  This special moment brought back memories of a poem he had written years earlier about the angels announcing the birth of Christ.    Mohr decided that his poem might make the perfect carol to share with the congregation on Christmas.  Challenge- it needed music.  The next day, Christmas Eve, he found the organist at the church, Franz Gruber.  Gruber was to create a melody that could be played for the carol using guitar, since the organ was out of service.  This challenge created a simple melody that would be easy to sing without the grandeur of the organ.  The people enjoyed it greatly!  The song then began to travel to other Alpine villages.  The song eventually made its way to the court of the King of Prussia and he ordered it sung every Christmas eve.  The song arrived in America as early as 1838- performed in German outside Trinity Church in New York.  It would not be until 1863 that the first English translation was made.  The translations came quickly and today cane be found in nearly 200 different languages around the world.  Find your favorite language version translated on the web- click here.

This common song shared among many languages was the centerpiece of the Christmas “truce” during World War I in 1914.  Soldiers came together speaking English, German, and French to sing the familiar tune.  This amazing war-time tale is told in the book Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub.  The book is a great read and would make an excellent gift for a special family member this Christmas.  Dig a little and you might find even more great variations on the origins of Silent Night.  What other songs should we be looking into?  Just let us know.

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