Ask anyone what their favorite Christmas carol is and the top of most everyone’s list is “Silent Night.” Composed in 1818 by an Austrian organist and schoolteacher, Franz Gruber, it will soon reach its 200th anniversary, 200 years of carolers, choirs, churches, organists, pianists, guitarists and people like you and me finding “heavenly peace” in its words and music. Here are a few keys to its enduring popularity. For a faith lift this Christmas or any time of year plug into “Silent Night.”
1) It’s easy to sing.
A long-standing myth holds that the church organ was on the blink back in 1818 when Franz Gruber had to compose his piece, and he needed a tune that would go well with a few basic guitar chords. Whether the story is true or not, the tune works beautifully with almost any accompaniment. All it takes is a few chords.
2) The tune is unforgettable.
My dad loved to sing and always sat in the front pew at church where he could bellow out the hymns as loud as he pleased. Unfortunately he wasn’t always on pitch. As I liked to tease him, “Dad you have a few really good notes. And sometimes they happen to be the right notes.” No matter. I was always happy to sing “Silent Night” next to him. We could always claim that the notes he was hitting were part of the harmony!
3) Everybody knows it.
A very true and poignant story of the troops in the trenches during the first Christmas of the First World War, Germans on one side, British and French on the other, tells of the truces they held that bloody year, 1914. The sworn enemies ventured into no man’s land and greeted one another and several reports have them singing carols. The one surefire tune that everybody knew was “Silent Night.” No matter that its words were first written in German, “Stille Nacht.” It had been translated by then into English and French. Today it exists in some 140 languages.
4) The song is a prayer.
No wonder the troops sang it, it expresses our yearning for peace, at the heart of our faith. All was not anymore calm in 1818 than in 1914 than in 2015, but we welcome the Christ Child with a tune that’s almost a lullaby: May he sleep in heavenly peace as we worship in a heaven-sent peace, the only one that could ever be truly lasting. “Jesus, Lord at thy birth,” we sing, celebrating the baby who will change the world and continues to change it.
5) It will bring you inner peace.
I was reminded of this recently when I sang “Silent Night” in Times Square, of all places. Hundreds of tourists swarmed around me, the billboards were flashing their garish lights, and just when I came to “All is calm” a loud horn honked. You can hear it here. No need to stop singing, though. The night was not silent, but the message of Christmas was still clear. Christ the Savior is born, Christ the savior is born.