200 Years of 'Silent Night'


16 December, 2018

On the night before Christmas in 1818, an Austrian clergyman and a music teacher sang a song that they wrote together for the first time.

They did not know it then, but their song would go on to be the world's most famous Christmas carol.

The song is called, in English, "Silent Night."

Joseph Mohr, a young clergyman from Salzburg, first wrote the words for a poem in 1816. Two years later, Mohr asked Franz Xaver Gruber, his friend and a teacher from Upper Austria, to write music for the words. Gruber simply added some musical notes to the poem. He did not attach much importance to the piece.

On December 24 of that year, Mohr and Gruber sang the song for the first time at the St. Nikola Church in Obendorf, outside of Salzburg. The church's organ was not working. So, they played the music with a guitar-like instrument.

A new hit song was born. Singing families then carried the song to the rest of Austria and across Europe.

American clergyman John Freeman Young published the first English translation of the song in 1859 at Trinity Church in New York. His translation included the well-known words "sleep in heavenly peace."

On Christmas Eve of 1914, a young British officer named Charles Brewer heard something that he had never heard before on the battlefield – a Christmas song. German soldiers were singing the German words to "Silent Night." The words were not familiar to Brewer -- but the music was.

Once the German soldiers had finished their song, Brewer and his soldiers answered by singing the English version of "Silent Night" and other Christmas songs.

By Christmas morning, along the 800-kilometer Western Front, German and allied soldiers came out of the trenches. They put down their weapons and exchanged greetings. The act became known as the World War I Christmas Truce.

But it was not until American singer Bing Crosby performed "Silent Night" in 1948 that the song became famous worldwide.

The song has since been translated into 300 languages. A Time magazine study in 2014 found that "Silent Night" is the most popular Christmas song ever, with 733 copyrighted recordings. In second place is "Joy to the World," with 391 copyrighted recordings.

Austria is celebrating the 200th anniversary of "Silent Night" with tours, shows, plays and special foods from Salzburg. Most of all, Austrians hope people remember where "Silent Night" truly came from.

Hai Do wrote this story for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

carol - n. a song sung during Christmas season

church's organ - n. a musical instrument, usually at a church, that has a keyboard and that makes sound by pushing air through the pipes

guitar - n. a musical instrument that has six strings which are played with your fingers or with a pick

trench - n. a long narrow hole dug in the ground

greeting - n. something that is said and done to show people that you are happy to meet them