Message of beloved carol still resonates 200 years later

December 24, 2018

In 1818 - 200 Christmases ago - one of the most iconic songs of the season was born among a gathering of Christians in Austria, a simple melody with simple words that captured the hearts of those listening.

The song’s message of heavenly peace is a sentiment for the ages.

For two centuries, people of every language, culture and religion have learned, sung and cherished the tune and lyrics of “Silent Night,” or “Stille Nacht,” as it’s known in German.

A Christmas service tradition often heralded with candlelight and followed by quiet contemplation, “Silent Night” depicts the birth night of the Christ child, a night regarded by Christians as the night peace came to earth.

Although the song shapes images of the Nativity, those who have performed it, arranged it, directed it and sung along to it recognize a universal message and appeal for all people.

The song was first written as a poem by Joseph Mohr, an Austrian priest from Salzburg, in the early 1800s.

A few years later, in 1818, Mohr asked his friend Franz Gruber, a teacher from Austria, to compose a guitar accompaniment for the poem.

Gruber sang the song for the first time in German at the St. Nikola Church in Oberndorf, Austria, at Christmas that year.

The song took root and began to spread a few years later, carried by singing families from Austria into Europe and across the globe.

With a doctorate in sacred music, Micah Hunter, the choir director at Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell, chorale conductor for the Glacier Symphony and adjunct music professor at Flathead Valley Community College, has accumulated years of experience and expertise with the treasured song.

Each year, he ends the Stillwater high school Christmas concert, extending an invitation for the audience to join the choir in singing “Silent Night.”

“It really makes for a really lovely ending because that concert ends usually without applause and usually with a long period of silence, because nobody wants to interrupt the environment they create when they sing ‘Silent Night,’” he said.

He compared the song to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” a song with an altogether different style but that is, according to Hunter, widely regarded in much the same way as a great statement of the potential of the human spirit.

“It feels and sounds like a song that’s many centuries old and like something that’s been sung since the beginning of time and memorial,” he said. ”‘Silent Night’ is similar in its spirituality and its appeal, but I think it’s different in its message. I think it’s more introspective and soothing, peaceful.”

As a Christian, Hunter said he never celebrates Christmas without reflecting not only on the birth of Christ but also the death and resurrection of Christ. For him, he said, the song “Silent Night” holds a message of hope, the arrival of a long-awaited savior and the sequence of events his birth set into motion.

“On the broader culture,” he said, “even for people that don’t emphasize the Christian identity of the Christmas season, I think they still have a deep affinity for the song and the symbol that’s associated with the season.”

He attributed much of the song’s universal appeal to its almost folk-like characteristics.

Traditionally, he said, before the modern music industry began to so deeply influence culture, folk music was popular music that spoke to the human experience, longings and passions.

Songs like that tend to stick and retain their significance through the years, he added.

“At times of the year like this when people are accustomed to taking on a more reflective mood, music and songs like “Silent Night,” especially, really help them to reflect on their humanity, the significant elements of being a person,” Hunter said.

COUNTLESS PERFORMANCES of the song over his 35-year career have given renowned vocalist Mike Eldred of Whitefish the chance to reflect on some of those human elements in a variety of settings.

“It always takes me back to my childhood, for sure,” Eldred said. “It’s a lullaby to calm the madness of the holidays.”

Eldred has spent his professional career singing on various world stages, singing back up in recording studios for famous artists, accompanying orchestras and leading chorales.

To get an idea of the time he has spent with “Silent Night,” he said, take the number of times a normal person has sung the song and multiply it by around 400.

“I really don’t think it loses anything, ever,” he said. “It has an effect that no other song, in my opinion, has.”

Before he ever began singing professionally, Eldred traveled with his family, singing in their family band, and no matter how big the stage is on which he now stands, he said the song still holds the power to take him back to those younger years when the song was new to him.

Performed many times and many ways, the song touches his audiences year after year in much the same way, with a tender reminder of Christmases past, he reflected.

“I always see tears, smiles, people singing the harmonies,” he said. “It takes them back to the simplicity and the faith of a child. It takes them back to the significance of remembering being a child.”

Serving as the finale to each Christmas Eve service at Christ Lutheran Church in Whitefish, “Silent Night” takes on its original form, played on a lone guitar and sung by Pastor John Bent as the congregation joins in.

For the last 28 years, the tradition has concluded the evening in the darkened sanctuary as each audience member holds a candle and sings the proverbial words of the 200-year-old anthem.

“I think the simplicity of the lyrics touch a longing that exists deep within us,” Bent said. “All the thinks that we look for are found as we draw near to this infant in this stable.”

No matter the beliefs or tradition held, Bent said that within the depths of every human heart lies a universal longing for hope and peace.

“We might not agree where that is found, but that’s what we’re seeking,” he said.

For those who look deeper into the theme of “Silent Night,” he said, there awaits a glimpse of the baby born as the embodiment of those longings.

“We’re drawing into this stable and over there, in the corner, is this woman and this baby,” Bent said. “There’s something flowing from them. There’s something there that can’t be found anywhere else.”

“And when we get a grip on that, we, too, can sleep in heavenly peace,” he added.

Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or mtaylor@dailyinterlake.com.

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