Music is a powerful thing. It has the ability to transport the listener to an entirely different place and time or evoke memories of people and events long past. Some songs just belong to a specific time and place.
You will be hard pressed to find two songs that evoke the Christmas season more than “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night.” So ubiquitous are they that you might not even remember a time you didn’t know them or sing them during the holidays.
But what most people don’t know are the fascinating stories behind these two classic Christmas carols. Here, we will uncover some of their secrets and show you why they’re as fascinating as they are beloved.
Silent Night, Holy Night
The first audience to ever hear “Silent Night” was a group of villagers in Oberndorf, Austria when they attended Christmas Eve Mass in 1818.
Joseph Mohr, who wrote the lyrics, was a young priest who found himself looking over the snow covered land late at night while out for a walk. Moved by the stillness and serenity of the scene, he penned “Stille Nacht” or as it’s known in the English translation, “Silent Night.”
On Christmas Eve in 1818, Mohr took what was his poem about the night of Jesus’ birth to Franz Xaver Gruber, the choir director at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, requesting that he write a melody for the poem to be performed that night at mass. Gruber obliged, and the rest, as they say, is history.
An organ builder working at the church heard the song and took a copy of the six-verse song back to his village where it was picked up by two families of traveling folk singers. They performed the song all through northern Europe and even to the King of Prussia. In 1839, it had its American debut outside of Trinity Church in New York City, spreading the lullaby-esque melody even further.
Over time, the composition evolved and was translated into over 300 languages. Throughout these over 200 years, the song has been sung by everyone from choirs in churches, superstars of the stage and carolers on doorsteps. But one of the most infamous performances took place during World War I in Europe.
The battlefield turned silent on Christmas Eve in 1914 during a temporary truce and soldiers in trenches sang the carols they knew from home. That night “Silent Night” was sung in French, German and English by the war weary soldiers.
After the original manuscript was lost, an air of mystery surrounded the carol and where it originated from. Some speculated that it could have been written by giants of the classical music world Mozard, Beethoven or Haydn. However, in 1994 an original manuscript in Mohr’s own handwriting was found giving Mohr and Gruber their rightful place in music history.
THE STARS ARE BRIGHTLY SHINING
A staple in churches and homes for almost two centuries, “O Holy Night” expresses what people feel is the majesty and serenity of the night of Jesus’ birth. But the birth of the carol itself isn’t the only interesting thing about its history.
In 1843, a parish priest in the medieval town of Requemaure approached local poet Placide Cappeau about writing a poem to commemorate his church’s brand new organ. Cappeau was a wine merchant by trade and not an overly religious man, but he nonetheless wrote the poem, “Minuit, chrétiens,” or “Midnight, christians” while in a stagecoach on his way to Paris.
The priest then encouraged Cappeau to give the poem to composer Adolphe Adams. The result of the collaboration was called “Cantique de Noël” or “Christmas Carol,” and it premiered in 1847 when it was performed by local opera singer Emily Laurey.
From Popular to Banned to Beyond
The carol became an instant favorite in churches everywhere in France. However, when word got out that Cappeau, the man who penned the favorite, was a staunch atheist and that Adams, the composer, was Jewish, the song quickly fell out of favor and was no longer performed in the church.
It didn’t die, though. Still sung outside of church context, it eventually was heard by an American Unitarian Minister named John Sullivan Dwight who was inspired to translate the carol into English in 1855. Dwight took some liberties with Cappeau’s original lyrics, but the version he penned is what we all know today as “O Holy Night.”
Fall on Your Knees
Dwight is responsible for bringing the carol to America and to an unexpected audience. As an abolitionist, Dwight felt strongly against slavery in the American South and most strongly identified with the words:
Chains shall break, for the slave is our brother;
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
When Dwight’s translation was eventually published it found an audience throughout the country but especially among fellow abolitionists in the North During the Civil War.
The Civil War isn’t the only war where “O Holy Night” affected people.
Though it had been banned from French churches for decades, “Cantique de Noel” was still popular outside of the church setting. The song was so powerful to some that it briefly stopped the Franco-Prussian War.
On Christmas Eve in 1871, while Germany and France fiercely fought, the legend goes that a French soldier jumped from his trench, lifted his eyes to the heavens, and began to sing “Minuit, Chretiens.” After the soldier finished several verses, a German soldier climbed from his trench and began singing Martin Luther’s “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” After this exchange, the story goes that fighting stopped for 24 hours to observe Christmas Day.
An Important First
Beloved by everyone from abolitionists to carolers, “O Holy Night” was part of another important moment in history. On Christmas Eve in 1906, 33 year old professor Reginald Fessenden used a new type of generator to speak into a microphone and become the first voice to be broadcast over the airwaves.
Radio operators and wireless owners were stunned to suddenly hear a man recite the Gospel of Luke’s version of the birth of Christ. Unaware that anyone could even hear him, he then picked up his violin and began to play “O Holy Night.” Suddenly, music had a new way to be spread to listeners because “O Holy Night” became the first song to be sent to people through radio waves.
So concludes the secret history of these two beloved Christmas classics. You may find yourself singing them in the coming weeks just as people have done for centuries before us throughout the world.