Many of us know the origins of the hymn Amazing Grace but far fewer know the story of how one of our most beloved hymns ‘Silent Night’ came to be. Now this is history I wish we had a video production of and there is a reason why I wished we had video footage! Its because the facts that I’m going to set down here is just one of the stories that’s told about this hymn.
If you really want to appreciate the ‘effects of the oral tradition’ go and read a few of the stories about the origins of this Christmas Carol. More or less the hard facts you find are the same but the way they’re put together varies. Its interesting, really it is.
Silent Night: The Poem
It was a poem a Clergyman wrote during the few days that preceded one Christmas Eve in 1818. That was 195 years ago and it doesn’t seem its worn out its welcome yet! This Clergyman lived and served in a small Austrian Village, nestled in the Alps, known as Oberndorf.
The Clergyman, Father Josef Mohr took a journey on foot to visit a family who lived in a cabin high in the mountains. Its recorded that as he walked he became very aware of the beautiful landscape. The blissful silence of the snow covered ground. The dark beauty of the Alpines against the very azure blue sky and the music that sang out from the creeks he first followed then crossed as he made his way to the awaiting family.
When he arrived, it was early evening and he was warmly greeted at the door. When he stepped in, the first thing he saw was a newly born babe with its mother in adoring attendance. Since we have no video production to view on YouTube LOL or a viral video to view that was sent to us thru one of the many social media networks, we’ll have to rely on those who’ve suggested that this walk put Father Josef Mohr into a reflective state of mind about the original Nativity scene. There would be no doubt his state of mind since he was in the middle of preparing for the upcoming caroling service that he would officiate Christmas eve.
When he left the family and headed home, it was nightfall and the moonlight glistened from the snow covered hills and gleamed from the babbling brook. It was a silent night and he felt it to be a holy night. All is calm, all is bright. But wait..!
What Went Wrong?:
While he was away, as the story goes, well at least one version of the story, his friend and colleague Franz Gruber, who was also the Choir Master and village music teacher, sat down to the organ to do a bit of rehearsal for the Christmas Eve service. and what do you think happened…why the organ was breathless and that means that no sound came from it! It was broken. This was a disastrous time for this to happen; it’s Christmastime and on Christmas Eve the organ is played while everyone sings hymns together. No organ, no music… but wait because when Father Josef Mohr arrived home, he sat down and penned the poem that was to become one of the most beloved Christmas carols of the Christian world. Even non believers sing this hymn during the Christmas Season and it’s now 195 years old!
When Josef and Franz were trying to figure out what to do about the upcoming service and the broken organ, he showed his poem to his friend, the music teacher. He loved it and said that the very words suggested a simple tune and in his mind the poem was really a Christmas Carol.
Wonderful, don’t you think, that while we don’t even have a video production we can view to prove this to ourselves, we are told that we can rely on the fact that like most music teachers, Franz Gruber played more than one instrument; he also played the guitar. He took the simple loveliness of the beautiful sparse poem now titled ‘Silent Night’, and set it to a memorable melody. The rest is history and most of that is well documented. How the Christmas carol was taken by the organ mender (someone had to come and fix that breathless heap of wood! LOL ) back to his small village and taught the simple song to a small group of children.
The Journey of Silent Night:
Then it ended up in the most famous cathedral of Salzburg, St. Peters. Then it travelled somehow to Paris…then to London and from there it arrived like so many other immigrants, to America. First in the big cities then to the small towns and now everywhere, during the Christmas season, you’ll hear ‘Silent Night, Holy Night.
The First TIme I Heard It Sung In Austrian:
I don’t think I shall ever forget hearing it for the first time in it’s original language, Austrian. My friend sang it to me one Christmas Eve. Michele was Austrian and we were both sitting in her new gorgeous A-frame house overlooking Lake Kooteny in British Columbia, Canada. It was dusk, we were seated side by side in recliner chairs that we had pulled up close to the floor to ceiling windows. The Canadian Rockies were, of course, snow covered. The night was clear, cold and the sky was a mix of purple and indigo. It was stunning.
This gorgeous painting we gazed upon, mixed with her obvious home sickness drew the Christmas Carol, Silent Night out of her. I had never heard her sing before. She was 53 and I was 24 or 25. I remember thinking about how she had taken up piano lessons and I wondered why someone so old would do something like that! So in my characteristic and sometimes, though not meaning to be, unkindness, I ask her why she was doing that? Because everything in my mind set, following on from a very industrious and utilitarian upbringing as an American, I factored that it was a waste of time unless you were ( I love this next useless phrase) unless you were ‘going to do something with it’.
I was taken aback when she simply said that she had always wanted to play the piano and this was the first time she could. She was doing it for herself. I’ve never forgotten that. It was a lesson that is still with me. There are so many things that I still want to do and in the ways of the world, if it’s only value is to be measured pounds and pence on a bottom line, well then, these things I want to do are equally a waste of time.
Precious Memories Teach Me Still:
What I most recall about listening to her singing that carol in Austrian and then teaching it to me was the depth of her longing for her homeland. I knew that they had come out of Nazi Germany and immigrated to Canada to escape so much unspeakable sorrow. And her singing that song, on this Christmas eve was particularly poignant since she did not consider herself a Christian.
The belief in God, as she put it, died in the horror of the war.
You have to admit, that the singing of this hymn by this woman would be memorable to anyone. She’s left us now, where we go when we die, I don’t know… but I do know we live because life is deathless by its nature just as light has no darkness by its nature.
Michele was beautiful. She had dreamy blue eyes and blond hair with many curls. She had a noticeable nervous tic that was somehow endearing. Although she was overwrought most of the time and had a profound and noticeable capacity for critical thinking. She introduced me to many aspects of literature and was always interested and impressed about my passionate interest in the Bible and my knowledge of its writers.
Today is December 11th, 2013. Christmas Eve is soon here – I’ll have to sing to her, this hymn in her mother tongue; I wouldn’t want her to think I’ve forgotten it.