(Note: This column first appeared in Farm and Dairy 16 years ago. I offer it here again this year, because its message never dims. Merry Christmas to all.)
If you walked by Edith Troyer’s third grade class at Walnut Creek Elementary School during December, it wasn’t unusual to hear voices of the young students singing a familiar Christmas carol during the holiday season (before the decrees of separation of church and state dictated otherwise).
But, if the passerby listened closely, he noticed that we weren’t singing the familiar words, “Silent Night, Holy Night.” No, we were celebrating our Germanic heritage and were singing “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” in our bright, chirpy voices.
It’s been several years since I’ve sung the German words to that beautiful carol, but the words came swiftly to mind when I read an article recently about the hymn’s 175th anniversary this year.
Stille Nacht was first sung on Christmas Eve, 1818, in St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, near Salzburg, Austria. Today, it remains a song that can stir the soul like no other melody.
The history story goes that church organist Franz Gruber discovered the organ was broken and could not be fixed before the Christmas Eve service. He asked the priest Josef Mohr to write a Christmas song that could be sung without the organ. Mohr wrote the lyrics and Gruber wrote the melody.
The carol was first sung that evening by Mohr, who was a tenor, and Gruber, a bass, accompanied by Mohr on a guitar. Their work is now known as Austria’s Christmas gift to the world and has been translated into more languages than any other Christmas carol.
The original St. Nicholas Church was damaged by waters of the Salzach River and the congregation rebuilt the church on higher ground. Construction of the Silent Night Memorial Chapel began in 1924, and, in 1937, the octagonal-shaped chapel, built on a landscaped mound over the original designers’ site of the church altar, was dedicated.
Perhaps the carol instills such devotion because of its link to the Christmas season. After all, it’s a simple tune without the grandeur of a Beethoven symphony. But I think we love the song’s simple beauty and that the hymn has achieved greatness because of its message: Christ the Saviour is Born. Christ the Saviour is Born.
May each one of you have a blessed holiday season.