Thought for the Day – 24 December
Today, the 200th anniversary of the first performance
of the beloved carol ‘Silent Night’
Exactly 200 years ago today, 24 December 1818 — in a little church in what is now Austria, the world heard for the first time a poem set to music that eventually would be hailed as one of the most popular and beloved Christmas carols of all time.
“Silent Night” was sung for the first time that Christmas Eve at a Midnight Mass at St Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, a village in the Austrian Empire. The lyrics were written by a young Catholic priest, Father Joseph Mohr (1792–1848) and the music was composed by his friend, the local organist and schoolmaster, Francis Xavier Gruber (1787–1863).
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 peace.
Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, how the light
Radiates love from Thy heavenly face,
At the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.
Fr Joseph Mohr’s final resting place is a tiny Alpine ski resort, Wagrain. He was born into poverty in Salzburg in 1792 and died penniless in Wagrain in 1848, where he had been assigned as pastor of the church. He had donated all his earnings to be used for elder care and the education of the children in the area. His memorial from the townspeople is the Joseph Mohr School located a dozen yards from his grave. The overseer of St Johann’s, in a report to the bishop, described Mohr as “a reliable friend of mankind, toward the poor, a gentle, helping father.”
Many generations of the Mohr family lived in the Lungau region, in the southern part of the Province of Salzburg. The pilgrimage church of St Nicholas in Mariapfarr, the little church where Father Mohr was the curate, is within walking distance of the former home of Joseph’s grandfather. The climate is so invigorating and the Alpine air so clean, the town has become a major vacation destination for Europeans who want to get away from city life. The pilgrimage church where Mohr celebrated Mass is undergoing the restoration of its centuries-old frescos.
The carol is believed to have caused a somewhat miraculous and well-documented Christmas truce during World War I. On Christmas Eve 1914, British and French troops were encamped in trenches in a face-off against German troops in Ypres in Flanders, Belgium. The two sides began singing Christmas carols to each other and “Silent Night” was the only hymn all the combatants knew. Singing it together broke the ice and led to a temporary cease-fire with soldiers from both sides meeting in the middle “No Man’s Land” to trade tobacco and candy, play soccer and sing carols.
As it marks its 200th anniversary, “Silent Night” remains as beloved as ever. I am sure that all of us who attend Midnight Mass tonight, wherever we are in the world, will be singing Silent Night in one of the 300 languages into which it has been translated.