Christmas is a time where stories come alive, in intimate, glorious splendour – intertwining memories and festive spirit. Where joy resonates within our souls, where the sentiments are complemented by the smells, the sights and certain magic in the air…. A spellbinding amalgamation of spiritual and cultural mythos brought to life by rhyme, reason and ritual.
It matters not who you are or where you are from, or what you believe in, during this time of year the soundtrack to Christmas is universal; for it is familiar, rich, memorable, evocative and personal as it is a reflection of so much more than being just a score to our lives.
“Silent Night” is perhaps arguably the most famous Christmas Carol, on par with “Jingle Bells” and “Twelve Days of Christmas.” The modern-day version as we know it is sung in more than 300 different languages around the world. It is in many ways THE mother of all carols, an epic lullaby that brings to life the majestic silence clothing the long wintery dark with its heartwarming melodies, while its words evoke that night when angels announced the birth of the Messiah to shepherds on a hillside.
The three-verse ballad describes the events of the birth of Jesus Christ. The Earth is calm and quiet all around Bethlehem save for the lonesome cry of the newborn baby. Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, holds her infant baby in her arms, and shepherds gather around her to witness the miracle. Furthermore, heavenly hosts have come down from above to welcome this child to Earth, singing Hallelujah (“praise Lord”). The Carol uses a few honours to address Jesus Christ, such as “Holy Infant,” “Christ the saviour,” and “Son of God.”
But how did this brooding lament come to life? When was “Silent Night” conceived into reason and rhyme?
History of “Silent Night”
Legend has it that a roving band of actors who performed in towns throughout the Austrian Alps arrived at Oberndorf, a village near Salzburg on the 23rd of December 1818. They would re-enact the story of Christ’s birth in the small Church of St. Nicholas. However, the Church organ was not in a usable condition and so the actors performed in a private home. Such was their performance of those first chapters of Matthew and Luke that assistant pastor Josef Mohr was deeply moved. After the performance, Josef decided on a longer scenic route overlooking the tranquil snow-covered village, instead of walking straight to his home.
Listen to “Silent Night” Christmas Carol
The scenic beauty that the pastor beheld brought to mind a poem he had penned some years before. It was perfect for a carol yet he did not have any music to accompany his words. Christmas eve service was the following day as well and so Josef met the church organist Franz Xaver Gruber early the next day. They worked together and Gruber being inspired by Josef’s words composed the music on a guitar on account of the organ being damaged.
That Christmas Eve Gruber and Mohr performed their miraculous and magical composition to the little Oberndorf congregation and it was so powerful that they all were in awe of the carol.
Many weeks later Karl Mauracher who was a reputed organ builder arrived in Oberndorf. Once Mauracher finished repairing the organ, he let Gruber play the repaired the instrument. It is said that when Gruber’s fingers danced on the keys playing the simple yet strangely haunting melody composed for Mohr’s poem Mauracher was left dazed and breathless. The organ builder took copies of the music and words of “Stille Nacht” with him back to Kapfing, his own Alpine village where two well-known families of singers — the Rainers and the Strasser upon hearing it was moved and added it to their Christmas repertoire. The carol has from that point onwards spread throughout the earth first through travelling bands of folksingers and then become a staple anthem in the modern ethos of carols, captivating and enchanting those who’ve heard it. It has the contours and style of a lullaby while its tune and words are hailed as masterpieces of concise expression.
Some say that “Stille Nacht” was inspired by the liberation of Salzburg from the first Napoleonic and then Bavarian rule. Others believe that it brilliantly highlights how with the church organ broken down that Mohr and Gruber helped avert a silent night and salvage a lonesome Christmas eve without music. Be that as it may and whatever the origin that you find resonates the best, there is no shadow of a doubt, be it silent or loud that “Silent Night” is a remarkable carol that has stood the tests and trials of time and will surely continue to do so.
Let us know what your favourite Christmas Carols are in the comments below.