The Story and History of Christmas Song: Silent Night

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Silent Night was written as a poem by an Austrian priest by the name of Joseph Mohr in 1816. It wasn’t until 1818 that a tune was written to make the Silent Night poem into a song. Mohr grew up under very humble circumstances. He was one of four children, all born out of wed lock. Mohr’s mother, a single mom, did everything she could to provide for her children. She worked as n embroiderer, but never made enough money to provide anything beyond basic survival needs for her children.

Fortunate for Mohr, a priest by the name of Johann Nepomuk Hiernle took him under his wing, recognizing the Mohr had a natural talent for music and academics. Thanks to Hiernle, Mohr’s was able to be educated and learn to play the violin, which he did at different churches. Inspired by the generousity and goodness of his mentor, Mohr went on to become a priest himself. Interestingly, because Mohr was born out of wedlock, he actually had to obtain special permission to become a priest. He did so, and was became a priest in 1815.

During his first assignment as an assistant priest in Mariapfarr, Austria, Mohr wrote the poem Silent Night. The Napoleonic Wars that lasted 23 years had ended in 1815. Bavarian troops that occupied the area had begun to withdraw the following year. The area was finally without the sounds of war, and could finally have peaceful nights. Some believe this was part of the inspiration for Silent night. But undoubtedly the lyrics speak of a greater peace, that of a “heavenly peace” through Christ the Savior that reflects the thoughts and feelings of Mohr’s heart as a priest.

It wasn’t until Mohr’s next assignment in the humble village of Oberndorf that the tune came about to accompany Mohr’s poem. It was here that Mohr began to gain a reputation for being the “priest of the people.” Oberndorf has suffered great loss due to the wars, with their primary industry being boating and the salt trade. There was now a great depression that had overtaken the area. Being of humble beginnings himself, Mohr was no stranger to poverty. Mohr was anxious to help the people in any way he could.

On December 24, 1818, Mohr asked church organist Franz Gruber to quickly write a tune on the guitar for his poem Silent Night. Gruber’s record of the request contains no explanation as to why the tune needed to be written so quickly, but he did so nonetheless. Subsequent stories, of course, evolved to explain the rush, including that the church organ had suddenly broken, some saying that mice had damaged the wires, others saying the organ had rusted and was no longer unusable. Others believe it was simply because Mohr saw a need to lift the spirits of his now beloved village of Oberndorf during such difficult times. The song quickly became popular in the region, with the help of a renowned organ repair man, Carl Mauracher, who carried the song with him sharing it at all the churches.

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Silent night was first translated into English in 1858 by Emily Elliott in England, then known as “Stilly Night, Holy Night.” The most popular translation, however, was done by an Episcopal priest by the name of John Freeman Young. Freeman’s translation included only three of the original six verses, however, verses 1,6, and 2.

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