‘Silent Night’ was first sung 200 years ago

Published 1:53 am Saturday, December 8, 2018

The year was 1818.  Joseph Mohr was serving as an assistant priest in Obendorf, Austria.  Ordained in 1815 at age 23, Mohr began serving the Obendorf parrish in 1817.

As Christmas 1818 approached, Mohr asked his friend, Franz Gruber, to compose a melody for a six-stanza poem that Mohr had written in 1816.  Gruber, a 31-year-old teacher and musician, served as church organist.

That December 1818, the organ was in dire need of repair.  Times were tough.  Only four years earlier, French soldiers occupied Austria until Napoleon had been defeated.  According to historians, Mohr specifically asked Gruber to compose the music for the guitar because the song would be sung in a church room in front of a nativity scene.

On Christmas Eve, following Mass, “Silent Night” was sung for the first time.  Joseph Mohr played the guitar and he and Franz Gruber sang Mohr’s words.

In 1822, the Rainer Singing Family was asked to perform folk songs for the Emperor of Austria and Alexander I of Russia.  They sang “Silent Night” and the song impressed Alexander, who invited the family to sing in his Court in St. Petersburg.

Joseph Greis, a book seller and printer, included “Silent Night” in a booklet of songs published between 1827-1832.  “Silent Night” was performed for the first time in America in 1839 in New York City’s Trinity Church.

By 1900, “Silent Night” had been sung on every continent thanks to missionaries who sang the Christmas song in many countries.  Each year, some two billion people around the world who speak 300 languages and dialects sing “Silent Night.”

Gruber and Mohr remained friends even after Mohr left Obendorf for Salzburg.  Mohr received his first position as vicar in Wagrain, Austria in 1837.  Through his leadership, a school was built for more than 100 children, who had previously held classes in a one room schoolhouse.  Mohr established a fund so impoverished children could also attend.

Mohr died of lung problems on December 4, 1848, nearly 30 years after the first performance of his song.  Described as a “Priest to the Poor,” Mohr never knew his Christmas song was sung throughout Europe and eventually around the world.  Reportedly, his only estate was his guitar, which was later owned by the Franz Gruber family.

Gruber died in 1863.  He lived to see the success of the song “Silent Night” in Germany.  Interestingly enough, a remarkable event occurred Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 1914, when an unofficial and impromptu cease-fire happened on the battlefields of Flanders during World War I.

German soldiers began singing Christmas songs such as “Silent Night” and the British Expeditionary Forces responded by singing Christmas carols.  “Heavenly peace” pervaded and the guns fell silent for a short time.

The prophet Isaiah foretold that the “Prince of Peace” would come (Isaiah 9:6).  Until you and I believe in the Prince of Peace we will never know true and lasting peace. As Joseph Mohr wrote, “Christ the Savior is born.”  Let Him be born in your heart.

Jan White is an national award-winning religion columnist. She can be reached at jan@janwhitewriter.com.