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You've Got to be Kidding...

Silent Night


Jonathan van Bilsen

December 31, 2020

Silent Night

Christmas is certainly one of my favourite times of the year. I love what it represents and how people enjoy the traditions come to life. One such tradition is the singing of Christmas carols.

My favourite carol has always been Silent Night, and every time I hear it I wonder how it originated. This year I actually took the time to do some research, and find the story behind this beautiful song.

First of all, it was recorded in German under the title ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’, which translated means, ‘Silent Night Holy Night’. It was composed in 1818 by Franz Gruber in a small town near Salzburg, Austria. The song has become so popular that in 2011 it was declared an ‘intangible cultural heritage’ by UNESCO, and has been recorded more times than you can count. The version sung by Bing Crosby in 1935, is the fourth best-selling single of all time..

The words were actually written by a young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, who wrote a poem in 1816 when he worked as an assistant priest. Franz Xaver Gruber, a schoolmaster and organist in a nearby village, had written music which he was planning on playing on the church organ on Christmas Eve in 1818. Unfortunately, the nearby river flooded, and damaged the church organ causing quite a dilemma for all involved.

Father Mohr ran to the church with his poem, met with Franz Gruber, and asked him to compose a melody to be played on a guitar using his poem. They were so pleased with the result they decided to play it at midnight mass. The church was eventually destroyed by repeated flooding, and was replaced with the Silent Night Chapel still standing today.

An organ builder, who serviced the instrument at the church, loved the song so much, he took the composition home with him. From there it went to a travelling family of folk singers, who included the song in their shows. They were very well known and performed in front of Franz I, Emperor of Austriaand Alexander I Tsar of Russia, as well as making the first performance of the song in the U.S. By the 1840s the song was very well known throughout the western world.

Most of this story was legend until 1995 when a manuscript was discovered in Mohr's handwriting, and dated by researchers back to 1820. It states that Mohr wrote the words in 1816, and shows that the music was composed by Gruber in 1818. And now the legend is fact.

Next time you sing Silent Night, think back to that cold wintry evening in Austria, and picture a single guitar strumming the sounds of one of the most famous Christmas carols ever written.

Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’, on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube.

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