Viewpoint: Sing Carols to Testify “Christ the Savior Is Born”

Contributed By the Church News

  • 14 December 2014

When we do it in the right spirit and with the right attitude, we testify of Christ each time we sing one of the carols of this blessed Christmas season.

“May the simple, five-word declaration in that most beloved of Christmas carols, ‘Silent Night,’ pervade our thoughts, words, and celebration during this and all Christmas seasons: ‘Christ, the Savior, is born!’”

It has been called “the song heard round the world” and is surely the most ubiquitous of all Christmas melodies.

But like many of our beloved carols, “Silent Night” (“Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht” in its original German) has a humble and homely history, perhaps befitting the sacred event it celebrates. Unlike some of those carols that stretch back several centuries, its origin is relatively recent and easily documented.

According to Christmas historian Bill Egan, it was first performed on Christmas Eve, 1818, for Midnight Mass at the village church in Oberndorf, Austria. (Ironically, the church had been named for the venerated ancient bishop St. Nicholas, though this was many years before that name would become associated in America with the festive and jolly figure of holiday gift giving and fantasy.)

Legend has it that the church organ was in disrepair, mice having gnawed the bellows. What is known for certain is that the song was first performed by its lyricist and composer as a duet with guitar accompaniment, backed up by the church choir.

Assistant pastor Joseph Mohr had written the words two years earlier as a young priest in Mariapfarr, Austria, before being transferred to Oberndorf. Now, on this Christmas Eve, he approached schoolteacher Franz Xaver Gruber, who lived in nearby Arnsdorf, asking him to compose a musical setting for the poem in time to be sung at mass that night.

Thus the two men introduced their own musical creation. A traveling organ repairman would later obtain a copy of the sheet music to take with him, and the song began to be better known. Still later, two folk singing families popularized it, and its fame began to spread.

Joseph Mohr, the writer of the text, died penniless as a pastor in Wagrain, Austria, in 1848, but it was not due to any profligacy on his part; he had donated his means for care of the elderly and education of children in the area.

For a time, the name of the composer was lost to history, and some had attributed the melody to Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven. In the late 20th century, a piece of sheet music was discovered that clearly established Gruber as the composer.

By then, of course, the hastily composed carol had become iconic, translated into more than 300 languages, influencing countless lives with its simple retelling of the Christmas story and reverent adoration of the Christ child.

“Perhaps this is part of the miracle of ‘Silent Night,’” historian Egan wrote. “The words flowed from the imagination of a modest curate. The music was composed by a musician who was not known outside his village. There was no celebrity to sing at its world premiere. Yet its powerful message of heavenly peace has crossed all borders and language barriers, conquering the hearts of people everywhere” (“Silent Night: The Song Heard 'round the World,” silentnight.web.za/history/index.htm).

In this, the song’s history can be viewed as symbolic of the Christmas message itself.

As another favorite carol relates, it was indeed angels who gave “the first noel,” but those glad tidings were in truth delivered to people of humble circumstances: “certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay keeping their sheep.”

How fitting that it be shepherds who received the first annunciation of the birth of the promised Messiah into mortality! In various places in scripture, Christ is referred or alluded to as being the Good Shepherd (see Topical Guide, “Jesus Christ, Good Shepherd”).

The Lord Himself is denoted as “the Lamb of God” in the recognition by John the Baptist (see John 1:29), in the words of the angel to Nephi during his vision of the advent of the Son of God into mortality (see 1 Nephi 11:21), and in the preaching of Alma to the people of Gideon (see Alma 7:14).

Christ Himself called His followers His sheep, as, for example, when the resurrected Lord enjoined Peter, the chief apostle, “Feed my lambs. … Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17).

As is well known from scriptures, song, and story, the shepherds, upon hearing the announcement of the birth, “came with haste” (Luke 2:16) and found the holy family in the humblest of circumstances, a lodging used as shelter for animals.

So deeply impressed were these shepherds by the things they had experienced that “they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child” (verse 17).

Perhaps their declarations were consistent with the tone of joy and elation reflected in yet another carol sung at Christmas, “Good Christian Men Rejoice”:

Give ye heed to what we say:
Jesus Christ is born today.
Ox and lamb before Him bow, and He is in the manger now. …

Now ye hear of endless bliss;
Jesus Christ was born for this!
He hath ope’d the heav’nly door, and man is blessed evermore. …

Now ye need not fear the grave:
Jesus Christ was born to save.
Calls you one and calls you all to gain His everlasting hall.
Christ was born to save!

Like the Judean shepherds, we who have been endowed with a spiritual witness of the life, mission, and divinity of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, have a message of joy to share.

When we do it in the right spirit and with the right attitude, we testify of Christ each time we sing one of the carols of this blessed Christmas season.

May the simple, five-word declaration in that most beloved of Christmas carols, “Silent Night,” pervade our thoughts, words, and celebration during this and all Christmas seasons: “Christ, the Savior, is born!”