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The story of 'Silent Night'

Themes: Christmas; festivals; special days; music; friendship.

Summary: The much-loved carol 'Silent Night' was first performed on Christmas Eve, 1818. Originally it was sung to a simple guitar accompaniment. The carol began life as a poem, written in 1816 by Father Joseph Mohr. Two years later, his friend Franz Gruber set the poem to music and the pair first sang the carol at midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Mohr's manuscript was lost, leading to confusion about the song's authorship, until his handwritten version resurfaced in 1995. By then, 'Silent Night' had been translated into over 300 languages and was a worldwide Christmas phenomenon.

Key links

The video:

The words and music...became one.

In the snowy Austrian village of Oberndorf, the priest Father Joseph was getting ready for people to come and sing carols about the birth of baby Jesus. It was Christmas Eve, 1818. Father Joseph had written a poem about Jesus being born in a stable and now he asked his friend Franz to write some music to go with it. There wasn't much time, so Franz dashed off a tune. At midnight, Franz and Joseph sang their new song for the first time and Joseph played his guitar. They didn't know it then, but their song 'Silent Night' would one day be sung all around the world at Christmas.

Duration: 3' 30"

End of speech: '...and right across the world.'

Story questions

Father Joseph

Franz - a school teacher who also played the organ in church

Oberndorf

Christmas Eve, 1818

St Nicholas's Church

Suggested framework

Content Guidance
1. Entry music The guitar instrumental of 'Silent Night'. See 'Related links'. The url is: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06p6bqf.
2. Introduction Display the image of the Silent Night Chapel (see 'Key links' above). Tell the children: 'In the village of Oberndorf in a country called Austria, there's a chapel - a tiny church. Two hundred years ago, a song was sung in Oberndorf that you know very well. And a little chapel with a round curved roof was built to remind everyone about it. Can you guess what that song is?' [Take suggestions from the children and guide them with clues: it's a Christmas song / it's a gentle, happy song / it's a very peaceful and quiet song / it's a lullaby, the kind of song you'd sing to lull a baby to sleep / it's about the baby Jesus'.] Once 'Silent Night' has been established as the song add: 'Silent Night is the song, the Christmas carol, that the little chapel was built to remind us of. People call it 'the Silent Night Chapel'. Ask: 'But what does the word 'silent' mean?' [Establish that it means noiseless, soundless, completely quiet.] Explain: 'The song is hoping for silence, so the little baby Jesus will sleep and not get woken up.' [You could ask the children to join you in a moment of silence.] Conclude with: 'In 1816, Father Joseph Mohr wrote a poem about the birth of baby Jesus. He spoke German, so he called his poem 'Stille Nacht' which is German for 'Silent Night'. But two years passed before the song finally got its music. This is the story of how that happened...'
3. The video Play the video. The duration is 3' 30" and the final words are: '...and right across the world.'
4. After the video You could use the Story questions to help children recall the details of the video.
5. Opportunity to sing You could follow the video by singing the carol 'Silent Night'. There are links to videos of both an instrumental and a vocal version below in 'Related links'. Both include the text of the song to sing along with.
6. Time to talk Ask: 'How does the carol make you feel?' [Gather the children's responses and remind them, 'On Christmas Eve, the 24th December 2018, it will be exactly 200 years since 'Silent Night' was sung for the very first time.' Add: 'Some people say the organ at Joseph's church wouldn't work because hungry mice had nibbled away at it...and that's why a new song had to be written in such a hurry and why it was written to be sung to a guitar. So if it hadn't been for those hungry mice, we might never have heard 'Silent Night'.' [The children could pretend to be hungry mice, nibbling away.] Additional discussion questions: Do you know any other Christmas songs with animals in them? / Why do we sing carols at Christmas? / Why do you think so many people love the carol 'Silent Night'? / What is your favourite Christmas song? Conclude with: 'Singing gives us a chance to all join in. It's fun to do and it helps us feel that we belong together and care for each other.'
7. Opportunity for reflection 'Christmas is a time for people to come together, celebrate and have fun. When we sing together it reminds us of what we have in common and fills us up with a warm, happy feeling. It's good to sing together. Think to yourself about singing 'Silent Night' all together...and how it made you feel.'
8. Opportunity for prayer Use your standard form of address ('Dear God', 'Lord Jesus' etc) and: ‘We thank you for the Christmas songs and carols that fill us with joy. Help us to sing together and care for each other as we celebrate the happiness that Christmas brings. Amen.’

Suggested songs

Title Collection Significant words
'Silent Night' Various 'Silent night, holy night / All is calm, all is bright / ...Sleep in heavenly peace'
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