'All is bright': Christmas classic 'Silent Night' turns 200

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

Each Christmas Eve, thousands of carolers, bundled against the cold, crowd outside an octagonal-shaped chapel in Oberndorf, a postcard-pretty village in the foothills of the Austrian Alps, to sing one of the world’s most-beloved Christmas songs.

The original church in Oberndorf, Austria, where "Silent Night" was first performed was razed in the early 20th century, but this memorial chapel was built on the same spot in the 1930s and has become the site of the annual singalong.

Amid sparkling white lights, two men, one strumming a guitar, stand in front of the small chapel and sing, in German, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht,” much like the song was performed for the first time in 1818.  The pair then continues with various renditions, in English and other languages, inviting a choir of voices from around the globe to singalong.

This Christmas Eve will be especially poignant for the carolers who show up in Oberndorf. December 24th marks the 200th anniversary of the song’s debut.

“Silent Night” has become a cultural phenomenon, a staple of the Christmas canon in the United States and elsewhere. The song has been translated into more than 300 languages and dialects, including Latin, and in 2011, was added to the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage List. It’s been recorded by countless singers over the decades, everyone from Bing Crosby to Motown's Temptations.

The song has inspired moments of peace, if only fleetingly. On Christmas Eve during the first year of World War I, soldiers on the Flanders front laid down their weapons and helmets to sing “Silent Night” and other Christmas carols.

To commemorate the bicentennial, Salzburg, Austria, will have a host of festivities, including special exhibits, concerts, lectures, plays and guided hikes to sites associated with the song and its creators, Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber. Mohr was an unorthodox priest, and Gruber was a teacher and church organist. Their paths crossed in Oberndorf.

Salzburg, Mohr’s birthplace, is hosting several events, including the premiere of a Broadway-like production, “My Silent Night,” which makes references to the song’s origins, and a multimedia exhibit at the Salzburg Museum that explores the song’s impact on the world.

While Christmastime is probably the most appropriate season to follow the trail of “Silent Night,” most of the sites associated with song and its creators are open year round.

"Silent Night," a staple of the Christmas canon, was written in 1818 by Austrians Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber. It has been translated into more than 300 languages and dialects.

The song’s beginnings truly lie in Oberndorf, a sleepy village on the Salzach River, about 12 miles north of Salzburg.

On Christmas Eve in 1818, Mohr, newly assigned to the St. Nicholas parish, asked Gruber to compose a melody for a poem he had written two years earlier, in bleaker times. Happy with the results, Mohr included the song in a short ceremony following Midnight Mass that same evening. Mohr sang tenor and strummed along on guitar, while Gruber sang bass.

There’s no recollection of how the song was received by the congregation or even how many attended Midnight Mass. In Gruber’s “Authentic Account of the Origin of the Christmas Carol, Silent Night, Holy Night,” he noted only that the song received approval.

Mohr, who liked to “sing worldly songs,” drink in taverns and smoke his pipe openly on the streets, left no written account of what inspired him to write the six-verse poem. Gruber, in his “Authentic Account,” only shared the request he received that day to “write a fitting melody for two solo voices together with choir and for accompaniment by guitar.”

Historians speculate that troubled times and a yearning for continued peace in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, which raged for years and ended 1815, caused economic and other hardships in the region, may have inspired Mohr. Also around that time, parts of Europe experienced “The Year Without A Summer,” months of colder-than-normal weather due to a volcanic eruption in Indonesia, which caused severe climate abnormalities, leading to crop failures and famine.

The original church where the song was first performed has been long gone, razed in the early 20th century after years of sustaining of flood damage from the nearby river. The memorial chapel was built on the same spot in the 1930s and has become the site of the annual singalong tradition, which begins at 5 p.m. every year. Typically, several thousands people show up, a number expected to grow for Monday’s singalong.

The original vicarage next to the chapel is now home to the SIlent Night Museum Oberndorf. By Christmas 1818, Oberndorf had settled into peace, with new political boundaries and adjusting to a declining salt trade, the backbone of the region’s economy, disrupted by years of warfare.

Mohr wrote the poem while living in Mariapfarr, about 80 miles southeast of Oberndorf, where he was an assistant priest. That village also is home to a Silent Night Museum, noteworthy for a large nativity scene, comprised of 100 figurines. It dates from 1750 and was in use when Mohr served the village. A panel of paintings in the church, “Worship of the Three Kings and the Golden Boy with Curly Hair,” is said to have inspired references to the infant child in Mohr’s poem.

 Another Silent Night Museum exists -- in Hallein -- where Gruber spent the last years of his life, pursuing his passion for music and serving as an organist at the parish church of Hallein, just across from his home. The home is now an impressive museum dedicated to the famous carol. Reopened in September after an extensive renovation, the museum displays impressive artifacts related to the song, including Mohr’s guitar and original sheet music.

It didn’t take long for “Silent Night” to find its way out of Oberndorf.

Sometime after the Christmas Eve performance, an organ builder from another village took a copy of “Silent Night” back to his hometown after repairing the church organ in Oberndorf.

He lived in the Zillertal valley, where farm families who sang to help promote their goods while traveling European markets picked up the song.  Eventually, their singing became popular and some families turned to singing as a profession. The most notable were the Strasser and Rainer families, who helped extend the song’s reach beyond Austria, into Germany and Russia. A second-generation of Rainer singers brought “Silent Night” to America during a tour in 1839. It is believed the first performance of the song in the U.S. occurred in front of Trinity Church in New York City.

“They took the song all around the world and the song became popular,” says Rosi Kraft,  a former taxi driver who owns a house the Strasser family once lived in and tends as a museum of regional history. “A lot of people didn’t know who wrote the song. People thought it was a folk song.”

Eventually, the song was traced back to the province of Salzburg, where Gruber authenticated the origins of “Silent Night.”

“Silent Night’s” journey from Oberndorf to the world is explored in-depth at the Salzburg Museum’s “Silent Night -- The Story. The Message. The Present.” Historical recordings, artifacts and historical documents, including a copy of the song autographed by Mohr, help tell the story. Especially moving is an installation called “Morphing,” in which screens display men and women of different origins and ages singing “Silent Night.” Every two beats, the singers “morph” into another person, in a different voice and language, some as unfamiliar to most people as Icelandic and Korean.

“Even a Grinch would be moved to visit the exhibition and learn about the multi-faceted use of the song, whose emotional appeal to people all over the world has been exploited time and time again,” says Natalie Fuchs, who works at the museum.

She speculates that it might not be the song or the lyrics that touch so many people all over the globe, but something much closer to home.

“Christmastime is centered around family and personal bonds. Many families gather all together only once a year. As children, we experience this season with intense emotions: Weeks and weeks of waiting and preparing for Christmas Eve,” she reflects. “Odors, dishes, decorations and songs all focus on that silent and holy night. As adults, it is those seemingly minor aspects, such as a simple song like “Silent Night,” that remind us of these emotions we experienced so deeply as children.”

Greg Tasker is a Michigan freelance writer.