Silent Night, Holy Night

by David Ouzts

The hallowed moment is almost upon us: The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, also known as Christmas Day or Christmas Eve. All the planning, all the rehearsing, all the music in order, and all the celebrating: it's about to commence. And as festive as much of the music and liturgy will be, it all boils down to the event so simply described in the carol "Silent Night."

There are many stories about the conception and first performance of "Silent Night," some of which are true and some are not. We do know that in 1816 a young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, wrote this poem while serving as an assistant priest in Mariapfarr, Austria.

Then in 1817 Mohr began serving as priest of the St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf. In 1818, he brought his text to Franz Xavier Gruber, a schoolmaster and organist in nearby Arnsdorf, and asked him to write a melody with a guitar accompaniment. Mohr and Gruber themselves first performed the carol as a duet for the midnight mass in the St. Nicholas Church on Christmas Eve 1818, inviting the congregation to sing along on a repeat of the last two phrases of the carol.

Although the original manuscript is lost, the carol and its history are documented by a manuscript discovered in 1995. This manuscript is in Mohr's own handwriting.

Another true story about "Silent Night" is documented by World War I German and British soldiers: the Christmas Truce of 1914. While it was not an official truce, we know that soldiers did sing carols to each other from the trenches. The German soldiers would sing a traditional German carol, and the British soldiers would answer back with a carol in English. 

When they happened upon "O come all ye faithful," the Americans sang in English and the Germans sang simultaneously in Latin, as the Germans knew the Latin text from the Roman Catholic tradition. In a personal letter English soldier Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade wrote, "And I thought, well, this is really the most extraordinary thing - two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war."

Between our three Christmas Eve liturgies, followed by Christmas morning in our Quilling Memorial Chapel, Christmas Lessons and Carols on Sunday morning, Dec. 27, and the Second Sunday after Christmas Day, Jan. 3, we will sing just about every Christmas carol in The Hymnal 1982. If I have counted correctly, "Silent Night" and "Joy to the world" will be sung three separate times.

No matter how you size it up, I still believe that "Silent Night" defines the moment. May we all experience a "Silent Night" Christmas this year.

Posted by Dr. David Ouzts at 1:25 PM
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