Bicentennial Of A Christmas Treasure

Curt-lineby Curt Kovener

Jackson County and the State of Indiana are not the only ones to celebrate a bicentennial next year. ‘Silent Night’, which has been translated into nearly 300 languages, has become an anchor for Christmas celebrations throughout the world was written by Austrian priest-poet-performer Joseph Mohr as a poem in 1816. Its simple message of peace and lullaby-like melody (composed a couple years later) can be heard from rural country churches in America to magnificent cathedrals in Europe.

Like many Christmas traditions, the truth is lost to history.

But legend has it that one winter evening after regular church services Pastor Mohr took a longer way home. The longer path took up over a hill overlooking the village of Oberndorf. From that hilltop, Mohr looked down on the peaceful snow-covered village. Meditating in majestic silence of the wintry night, Mohr gazed down at the glowing Christmas card like scene. He recalled a poem he composed and decided those words might make a good carol for his congregation the following evening at their Christmas Eve service. But he didn’t have any music to which that poem could be sung.

So the next day Mohr went to see the church organist Franz Xaver Gruber who, in just a few hours, came up with a melody which could be sung with a guitar. (The church organ was inoperable due to rust or mice; depending on which legend you prefer to believe, as the exact cause has been lost to the ages.)

On Christmas Eve in 1818, the little Oberndorf congregation of St. Nicholas heard Gruber and Mohr sing their new composition to the accompaniment of Gruber’s guitar.

The lyrics and melody spread slowly, as oral histories do, shared predominately by itinerant choral groups traveling church to church.

One such group, the Strasser Family singers spread the carol across northern Europe. In 1834, they performed “Silent Night” for King Frederick William IV of Prussia, and he ordered his cathedral choir to sing it every Christmas Eve.

Twenty years after “Silent Night” was written, another family singing group on tour brought the song to the United States, singing it (in German) at the Alexander Hamilton Monument located outside New York City’s Trinity Church.

In 1863, nearly fifty years after being first sung in German, “Silent Night” was translated into English. Eight years later, that English version made its way into print in Charles Hutchins’ Sunday School Hymnal. America was late in embracing the now Christmas favorite.

The original church of St. Nicholas, in Oberndorf where “Stille Nacht” was first heard in 1818, was torn down in the early part of the 20th century after sustaining damage from the flooding of the nearby Salzach River. The Silent Night Chapel was erected on the spot in front of the main altar where Gruber and Mohr by its stood to introduce the six-stanza carol. In a higher section of Oberndorf, another church was built and the original pulpit and altars from the old church were moved there. Every Christmas at Midnight Mass, singers stand in front of the same altars and recreate the moment when the song heard around the world was first performed nearly 200 years ago.