Only four days are left before Christmas comes to the year 2018, which itself is drawing to a close. On the other hand, there are only three days left before the anniversary of a significant contribution to the Holiday music tradition. This was a Christmas carol that was first heard for the first time in a small village in Austria, where the song’s very origin has become the subject of legend as well. Next week on Christmas Eve, yuletide musicians and merrymakers may take time to remember a simple but globally influential Christmas carol with a two-word title: “Silent Night”.
Historians of Christmas carols would have it that the genesis of “Silent Night” in Austria, year 1818, was quite the exciting Holiday story: at the village of Oberndorf, the chapel organ was broken so the curate, Joseph Mohr, needed to make a Christmas song that could be played decently on guitar. He enlisted the help of the schoolmaster and organist Franz Gruber, and together they put together a song, in Mohr’s lyrics and Gruber’s composition. They finished in time to perform the carol – “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” – for the Oberndorf Christmas Eve Mass. But according to the preservation society the Stille Nacht Association, Mohr already wrote the words since 1816, so the creation of what in English would become “Silent Night” was not really hectic.
Whatever the case, eventually this simple but heartwarming carol was eventually carried across Europe, then America and overseas, by various composers and folk performers. Our most familiar English version was done in 1859 by Episcopal priest John Freeman Young in New York City, with three of the original six German stanzas translated. Further legends claim that the song was sung in the trenches during World War I by soldiers from opposing sides, causing them to stop fighting on Christmas Eve.
“Silent Night” at present is said to be known in no less than 140 languages and dialects, proving its remarkably universal appeal. It is no surprise therefore, as The Japan Times tells it, a 200th Anniversary celebration will be held at Oberndorf near Salzburg in Austria, centered on the memorial chapel that stands on the site of Father Mohr’s original St. Nicholas chapel, where “Stille Nacht” was first sung. Oberndorf tourism office head Clemens Konrad claims they predict double the usual number of local and international tourists for December 24, 2018 due to “Silent Night”.
Even Pope Francis has a fondness for the carol. He has expressed regret at being unable to accept from the Salzburg regional government to drop in at Oberndorf for the commemoration of what he claims is his favorite Christmas song.
Image from Stille Nacht Association