Units

Silent Night: A Unit Study

Silent Night: A Unit Study

When “Silent Night, Holy Night,” was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818, its composers probably did not anticipate that it would become one of the world’s most beloved carols. While legend has embellished some of the details of the song’s early history, in reality the story is quite simple.

In 1816, a priest named Joseph Mohr penned a simple poem beginning with the opening words “Silent Night! Holy Night!” This work contained some lines that are unfamiliar to us today. Take for, instance, the first stanza:

Silent night! Holy night!
All’s asleep, one sole light,
Just the faithful and holy pair,
Lovely boy-child with curly hair,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!

Mohr became the priest of the parish in Oberndorf, Austria, in 1817. During the previous year, a schoolmaster and organist named Franz Xaver Gruber had also come to the parish’s St. Nicholas Church. In 1818, Mohr had the idea of enlisting Gruber’s help for a very special Christmas celebration. Mohr’s friend Andreas Winkler told the story this way in the Salzburger Chronik many years later:

…Shortly before Christmas, 1818, he met Mr. Franz Gruber and said: ‘Let’s work up something together for Christmas Eve,’ which was the way it turned out; ‘I did the lyrics and Franz Gruber, the melody’—the same Vicar Mohr always put it in those words.

Silent Night: A Unit Study
Franz Xaver Gruber

The lyrics for this little “something” proved to be none other than the lines Mohr had penned two years before. His request was that Gruber set the poem to music. He and Gruber would sing a duet, accompanied by the choir on the last two lines of every verse and by Mohr’s guitar throughout. A guitar accompaniment for a Christmas carol in church music was highly unusual at that time and has caused much speculation as to whether the church organ might have been broken. Gruber’s son, also named Franz, later offered an alternative explanation:

 

During the time when my father was the organist of the church of St. Nikola, there was a very poor, almost unusable organ there. This may well explain why the Revered Mohr preferred to accompany the carol on a well-tuned guitar than on an off-pitch organ.

In any case, Gruber willingly composed a tune for the new carol. His composition was very similar to the melody we are familiar with today, but was performed at a lively tempo. Gruber later wrote that the first performance on Christmas Eve met with “general approval by all.”

“Silent Night” Comes to America

The organ at St. Nicholas Church, whatever its condition may have been on Christmas Eve in 1818, unquestionably needed frequent attention. This was fortunate for the rest of the world, as Karl Mauracher, the man in charge of repairing the organ, took an interest in the song after hearing it for the first time at the parish church. He insisted on taking a copy home with him and promptly shared it with several Austrian singing families he was acquainted with.

One of these singing families was the Rainers. The Rainers introduced “Silent Night” to America on Christmas Day 1839, singing it in front of the Alexander Hamilton Memorial in New York City. Although initially viewed as an Austrian folk song, the words of “Silent Night” were powerful enough to merit translation into English and adoption as a hymn suitable for Christmas. The first translation was made by J. F. Warner in 1849 and appeared in The Devotional Harmonist in 1851:

Silent night! hallowed night!
Land and deep silent sleep;
Softly glitters bright Bethlehem’s star.
Beckoning Israel’s eye from afar
Where the Saviour is born,
Where the Saviour is born.

Many other English translations followed, but the version most Americans are familiar with was published in 1859 by John Freeman Young in a pamphlet titled Carols for Christmas Tide. This version also provided us with the slow, majestic melody that we are accustomed to.

The Quest for the Composer

While countless singers spread “Silent Night” all over the world, most of them lost sight of the original author of the song. Many simply accepted it as an Austrian folk song. Others suggested that it was a work of Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven.

In 1854, the Royal Prussian Court Chapel asked the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter in Salzburg to get to the bottom of the matter. While the monks were carrying out their investigation, Franz Gruber came forward with his “Authentic Account of the Origin of the Christmas Carol, ‘Silent Night, Holy Night!’” This account took time to gain acceptance, however. It was not until about two decades later that musical periodicals began to acknowledge Gruber’s story as the true one.

Final confirmation of Gruber’s account did not come until the mid-1990s. An old handwritten copy of “Stille Nacht” turned up, bearing two critical handwritten notes. The lower left corner of the page bore the inscription, “Text by Joseph Mohr—confirmed by my own signature—assistant priest 1816.” The upper right corner read, “Melody by Fr. Xav. Gruber.” Gruber’s narrative was vindicated beyond a doubt.

The Legacy

“Silent Night” probably ranks among the top Christmas carols in our nation. It was successful enough to warrant several English translations and countless recordings.

But the popularity of “Silent Night” is far more than an American phenomenon. Stories of the Christmas Truce of World War II, when British and German soldiers put down their weapons and joined in singing the carol, bear witness to that. Some experts estimate that “Silent Night” has been translated into as many as 300 different languages and dialects worldwide.

Undoubtedly the timeless power of “Silent Night” comes from its timeless message, a promise of the peace and joy that Christ came to offer:

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.

 

Music & Lyrics

Silent Night
Music and lyrics at Christmas Karaoke.

Silent Night
Printable sheet music.

Silent Night
Lyrics, sheet music, MIDI, and German and Russian translations at TimelessTruths.org.

Silent Night
Bing Crosby singing via Victrola.

 

Suggestions
  • Find Austria on a map (see the resources below).
  • Copy each stanza on Drawing & Writing Paper and illustrate the verse.
  • Narrate the meaning of each stanza.

 

Further Investigation

Silent Night
Brief information at CyberHymnal.org.

The Christmas Truce
Details at the BBC.

 

Activities

Silent Night
In over 100 languages — everything from Afrikaans to Zulu including American Sign Language.

Gifts of Christmas (Silent Night) Animated Card
To send or simply view.

 

Books

Silent Night: A Unit StudySilent Night: The Song and Its Story by Margaret Hodges
Beautiful picture book that tells the story of how “Silent Night” came to be written and performed on Christmas Eve in 1818.

Joy to the World! by Kenneth W. Osbeck
Joy to the World! {Review & Go-Along Activities} Helpful resource that provides The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols. Read our review for more information on the book and how we used it.

 

Unit Studies & Lesson Plans

Mystery Christmas Carols
Lesson plan from Crayola for illustrating the carol. (Of course, in this case it will not be much of a mystery!)

 

Printables & Notebooking Pages

World Map
At EduPlace.com for locating Austria.

Silent Night
Color printable with lyrics at DLTK-Holidays.com.

Silent Night Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.