The Block Island Times

Rhymes to Reason: A Christmas story

By Sheridan Fisher Carley | Dec 25, 2012

The Christmas carol “Silent night, Holy night” has been a gift every yuletide season since Christmas of 1818. It was written by a rector and choir-master in Austria. The world received the blessing of peace in the form of song.

I used to tell the story I'd always heard about the carol's origins to my little children and their parents, who were invited to the school Christmas party. “Silent night” has always been my favorite Christmas carol, and when it is played in church on Christmas Eve, I find myself missing all of my family that are in heaven and pray they are with me at that time.

The story — it's not the version historians tell now, but I love it and so continue to tell it — comes from a small village in Obendorf, Austria. The 25-year-old rector of the church, Joseph Mohr, was alone on Christmas in 1818 when he heard pounding on his door. He opened the door and there was a woman begging him to come up the mountain because a young father and mother had just had a child and they wanted him to come and bless their child and house.

The rector started on the long, trying journey up the mountainside. When he finally arrived at the home of the young couple, the scene reminded him of the nativity. In a cradle that the father had made out of rough hewn wood was the newborn baby boy. The mother lay on a bed of boughs. The rector was touched, gave his blessing and returned down the mountain. He started the song in his head, inspired by what he had just seen.

When he got home that night, he remained up writing a manuscript for his inspiration for a song. The next morning, Joseph Mohr went to find the village organist, choir-master and friend Franz Gruber. He encouraged Gruber to pick out a melody on the guitar for the Christmas Eve mass, since the church’s organ was broken. A few hours later, Franz Gruber ran to the rectory with the tune and words he had sounded out.

For the first time on December 25, 1818, the villagers gathered in the church to hear the new Christmas carol, “Silent night, Holy night.” The song took place at midnight mass. The song echoed through the quiet alpine mountains, sung by Joseph Mohr in a loud baritone voice and Franz Gruber in a loud bass.

The moral of the story is that the most famous Christmas carol of all had such a humble beginning, and is truly an icon for a song of peace.

“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God,” —Matthew 5:9.

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