200 years of “Silent Night” – the story of the world’s most popular Christmas carol

Silent Night’s famous melody wasn’t composed until two years after the lyrics for the Christmas carol were written. Today, this song of peace is famous far beyond the Ziller Valley and Salzburg, and its verses are sung in many languages all over the world throughout the Advent season.

The meaning of Silent Night

The meaning behind Silent Night’s verses is a deep longing for peace in the land, as in 1816 the long period of war was finally coming to an end. At the same time Salzburg and the Ziller Valley were undergoing a complete reorganization along with changing borders. The assistant priest Josef Mohr had recently moved from Mariapfarr to Oberndorf and was still traumatized by his experiences under Bavarian occupation. From this deep longing for order came a message of peace, which is perfectly expressed in the fourth verse of the original text. Over the years, the number and content of the song’s verses changed several times. Originally six verses were sung at the nativity scene during Advent. Many identified with the fundamental Christian message of peace alone and took the song beyond the borders of the church. The desire for peace on Earth is alive and well in all of us.

The lyrics of Silent Night

The song is a heartfelt appeal to Jesus Christ and his parents. Mohr combines a prayer for peace between all people in the world with a plea for silence (heavenly rest). In some verses, the poet paints images of Christmas in winter, an intense expression of the people’s longing for rest. Silent Night’s lyrics also include an affirmation of faith in redemption through Jesus Christ, as well as an ode the forefathers. The Christmas carol ends with cheering angels and a final wish for the protection of the new-born Saviour.

Silent Night! Holy Night! The lyrics

1. Silent night! Holy night! All are sleeping, alone and awake Only the intimate holy pair, Lovely boy with curly hair, Sleep in heavenly peace! Sleep in heavenly peace!

2. Silent night! Holy night! Son of God, O how he laughs Love from your divine mouth, Then it hits us – the hour of salvation. Jesus at your birth! Jesus at your birth!

3. Silent night! Holy night! Which brought salvation to the world, From Heaven’s golden heights, Mercy’s abundance was made visible to us: Jesus in human form, Jesus in human form.

4. Silent night! Holy night! Where on this day all power of fatherly love poured forth And like a brother lovingly embraced Jesus the peoples of the world, Jesus the peoples of the world.

5. Silent night! Holy night! Already long ago planned for us, When the Lord frees from wrath Since the beginning of ancient times A salvation promised for the whole world. A salvation promised for the whole world.

6. Silent night! Holy night! To shepherds it was first made known By the angel, Alleluia; Sounding forth loudly far and near: Jesus the Savior is here! Jesus the Savior is here!

Songwriter and composer of Silent Night

In 1816 Joseph Mohr – still in his old parish Mariapfarr – wrote Silent Night as a poem. It was another two years before he gave the poem to composer Franz-Xaver Gruber, who composed a melody for it in 1818. The two sang the song for the first time on Christmas Eve. Despite its humble beginnings in St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf near Salzburg, Silent Night was ready to travel the world. Church choirs and classical singers usually perform a slightly altered, shorter version during Advent. In some cases, text passages have been adapted to current linguistic norms. It’s fair to assume that the original composition arose out of necessity. In fact, the song should have been played on the small church organ; however, the only one available was defective so a melody with guitar accompaniment in mind was created instead.

Joseph Mohr

(1792 - 1848)

Joseph Mohr was born in 1792 and grew up in Salzburg. His musical talent was discovered and encouraged at an early age, which enabled him to attend a secondary school. After attending a monastery grammar school, he studied theology and was ordained a priest in 1815. Until 1817 he remained in Mariapfarr as a co-adjutor, before he was appointed assistant priest in Oberndorf at the end of the year. After the success of his song, Mohr was very active socially. He initiated a new school building in Wagrain, founded a compensation fund for children of destitute parents, established a church choir, supported the fire brigade and later established a home for the poor and infirm.

Franz Xaver Gruber

(1787 - 1863)

The composer Conrad Franz Xaver Gruber was born in 1787 in Unterweitzberg, a village in Upper Austria. Thanks to the help of a school teacher, he did not take up his father’s profession, but began his training as a teacher, which was strongly linked to music at the time. As early as 1805 he had begun musical training with an organist in Burghausen. In 1806 he passed the teacher examination in Salzburg and was appointed teacher in Arnsdorf in 1807. The position in Arnsdorf enabled him to work as a teacher, organist and sacristan. Several of his children also started a musical career. After their success with Silent Night, Holy Night, Gruber and Mohr composed additional church songs together, but separated again after a few years.

Events surrounding Silent Night

Preparations are currently underway in Salzburg for a special exhibition celebrating 200 years of Silent Night. And in Oberndorf and other areas of the Ziller Valley, churches and people are preparing intensively for this special anniversary. Festive services are held, anniversary books are published, and plays are performed. Historians give lectures which follow in the footsteps of Mohr and Gruber, giving insights into the time and history. Temporary exhibitions will also be opened to pay respect to the significance of the song of peace. The highlight of the 200th year anniversary will come when Silent Night is sung during the Christmas masses. Most events take place in Oberndorf, Arnsdorf, Hallein and Salzburg. Lantern walks during Advent, light installations and oratorios attest to the song’s 200 years of popularity.

Conclusion:

Silent Night was created 200 years ago to be a message of peace. From the moment it was set to music, the song has been a worldwide sensation, as the longing for silence during Advent and the hope for everlasting peace are felt just as strongly today as ever.