Publisher’s Point: The Bicentennial Of A Beautiful Carol

By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

I have been thinking about the fact that this is the last edition of Athens Now for 2018, and as always I feel a bit wistful, as this has been a remarkable year on a number of fronts. The most prevalent theme for the year has been “Bicentennial” — first of Limestone County, and more recently, of the City of Athens. But did you know that in just a few days there is one more bicentennial to celebrate? There is, and it is the 200th birthday of the classic Christmas carol, Silent Night.

It was at St. Nicholas Church, in the town of Oberndorf, near Salzburg, Austria (of Sound of Music fame) on December 24, 1818 that two men sang the song for the first time. One, Joseph Mohr, wrote the lyrics as a poem, and the other, Franz Gruber, wrote the music for guitar; and the simplicity, grace, dignity, and beauty of Stille Nacht has caused this story of the most extraordinary birth in human history to endure unabated through all of the difficult as well as delightful periods and events of the last 200 years. I think back on my grade school days (long before school administrators banned the colors of red and green from school property because they were too “Christmas-y”) when we had a school assembly where we watched a documentary on the history of the song. No one objected to reading it, singing it, or performing it, and we even had a live Nativity scene in our public school every year.

Think of this: we have also just commemorated the 100th year anniversary of the end of WWI, and in December of that year Germans, French, Austrians, Brits and Yanks sang out “…sleep in heavenly peace,” knowing that for the first time in years there would be no bombs, no mustard gas, no quest for anything other than armistice. Almost 20 years later, in 1937, the dedication of the Silent Night Chapel took place on the site of the church where the song was first performed. The entire town, including the church, had been moved 800 meters to get out of a continuing flood path, and now a much smaller chapel stood in its place. One year later, Adolf Hitler decided to annex Austria, and once again, Germans and Austrians and the rest of the world had to dig deeper to remember that someone had come to live among us and then die for us to make sure that we could have “heavenly peace,” too.

Have you ever taken a look at all the verses? They capture the gospel, the promise of “Peace on earth, to men of good will,” and the reminder that this time of year is about way more than ongoing Black Fridays. Here they are. Go ahead and sing all of them without fear or shame. This is America, people celebrate Christmas, and they have been singing this for 200 years. Happy Birthday, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year to all!

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

Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia,
Christ the Savior is born!
Christ the Savior is born

Silent night, holy night!
Son of God love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth