A song with a message of heavenly peace that celebrates the birth of the Christ Child began its journey around the world in 1816. With more than 300 translations today, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht,” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”) has become the world’s most loved carol.
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly
In 1816, when Father Joseph Mohr, a priest in Mariapfarr, Austria, wrote a six-stanza poem, “Stille Nacht” was born. Possibly, it was during Christmas Eve Mass, which included German singing and folk instruments, that inspired him to write the song.
After transferring to Oberndorf in 1817, on Christmas Eve 1818 Mohr visited the home of church organist/schoolteacher Franz Gruber and showed him the poem. He asked Gruber to add a melody and guitar accompaniment so it could be sung at Midnight Mass.
Later that evening at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, the two men, a priest and a schoolmaster, sang the carol for the first time, backed by the church choir. Mohr sang the tenor part and provided accompaniment on guitar while Gruber sang bass.
According to Gruber in his “Authentic Account of the Origin of the Christmas Carol, ‘Silent Night, Holy Night,’” written on Dec. 30, 1854, the song was met with “general approval by all” in attendance, mostly shipping laborers, boat builders and their families.
In Austria today, “Stille Nacht” is considered a national treasure, and tradition says the song should not be played before Christmas Eve. Commercial use of the 202-year old carol is forbidden.
During the last 200 years, the song has been translated into more than 300 languages. In the mid-1800s, it was an Episcopal priest with Florida ties, John Freeman Young, bishop of Florida from 1867-85, who gave us the English translation we sing today.
The carol also enjoyed great recognition as early as World War I, when soldiers on each side of the frontline laid down their weapons on Christmas Eve and sang the carol across no man’s land.
Another beloved Christmas carol was written by a preacher after a memorable Christmas Eve.
“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above the deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Christmas Eve, 1865. A giant of a man, 6-foot-6 and almost 300 pounds, rides horseback across the “Field of the Shepherds” on his way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to worship in the Church of the Nativity.
This young preacher, Phillips Brooks, was so moved by this experience, of watching the shepherds tending their sheep, looking up at the beautiful star-lit sky, and assisting in a midnight service at the church, that he later wrote:
“I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Savior’s birth.”
In 1868, while Brooks was searching for a new carol for the children to sing in the Sunday school Christmas program at his church, Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, the memories of his trip returned. He then wrote the beautiful carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
This gentle giant is said to have won the hearts of people with his preaching and writing as few clergymen have ever done — and he will be forever remembered for one of the most popular Christmas carols to survive the test of time.