The Christmas Carol, Silent Night, was first sung on Christmas Eve of 1818. The assistant priest at the newly established parish of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf Salzburg Austria was Joseph Mohr. Earlier in the day he had handed over to the organist Franz Gruber a poem he had written in 1816 with the request to write a fitting melody for it which he did by the end of the day. The song was included in the Christmas mass that evening. Mohr sang the tenor part and provided accompaniment with guitar, while Gruber sang bass. According to Gruber, the song was met with “general approval by all” in attendance (mostly shipping laborers, boat builders and their families).
Silent Night was written and performed just after the Napoleonic wars, which had caused great suffering, had come to an end. The end of the war caused the Principality of the Salzburg Archbishops to lose its status as an independent country and it was forced to separate with part of its lands assigned to Bavaria and the larger portion relegated to Austria. There was a depression in the local economy, with the transport companies, boat builders and laborers facing unemployment and an unsure future. These facts give greater meaning to the song’s words celebrating the birth of the Savior and the heavenly peace his birth promised.
Episcopalian bishop John Freeman Young published the English translation that is most frequently sung today in 1859. The carol has been translated into about 140 languages and is today a universally loved carol. One other interesting fact, in 1914, during the Christmas truce of the first year of World War I, the song was sung simultaneously by the opposing troops in French, English and German. It was apparently the one song that all the soldiers on both sides knew.
This Christmas Eve will be the 200th anniversary of the first singing of Silent Night. As we hear/sing the song this Christmas season let us remember its history and be thankful for this wonderful carol given to us by God that celebrates His birth.