Category Archives: Christmas

Did you know this (about ‘Silent Night’ and ‘O Little Town’ and ‘God Rest Ye’)?

The most popular Christmas carol in the world, Silent Night, had a most unlikely author.  Joseph Mohr was his mother’s third illegitimate child. His life was so full of stigma that little Joseph was banned from attending school or learning a trade. But the boy loved to sing. While playing on steps leading up to a monastery, he was overheard singing by the monk who was the cathedral choirmaster. He thought the boy’s voice was so good that he could not bear to see it wasted. He arranged for him to study with his students. The boy proved to be an outstanding pupil and mastered the organ, violin and guitar by the time he was twelve. He was ordained a priest at age 23.

The composer of the carol’s tune, Franz Gruber was also born in poverty and showed musical talent early. His father, a linen weaver, discouraged his study of music so he studied the violin secretly. Through his life he held positions as organist and choir director in various parishes, as well as serving as a schoolteacher and then headmaster.

When Mohr was 26 and Gruber 31, The Nativity - N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945)in December 1818, at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, they together gave the gift of “Silent Night” to the world.

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.

The traditional story of its origin is that Mohr, the assistant pastor of the church in Oberndorf, and Franz Gruber, the organist there, wrote the carol on Christmas Eve in 1818 when they discovered the church organ was damaged. (Different versions say it rusted out, or mice chewed through vital parts.) Charming as that story is, it is fiction.

Years later, on December 30, 1854, Gruber wrote the following:

On December 24th in the year 1818 the curate of the newly erected parish-church St. Nicola of Oberndorf, Mr. Joseph Mohr handed over a poem to the deputy organist, Franz Gruber … with the request to compose a suitable melody for two solo voices with choir and the accompaniment of one guitar.

Gruber did so, and the carol was first performed at the midnight mass on Christmas Eve, 1818. Mohr sang the tenor part, Gruber sang the bass, and the church choir did the refrains of each verse, which consisted of the last two lines of the verse. Mohr played the guitar accompaniment. It was said to have been enthusiastically received by the congregation.

Later Franz Gruber, son of the composer, wrote this in a letter:

“During the time when my father was the organist of the church of St Nikola, there was a very poor almost unusable organ there. This may well explain why the Reverend Mohr preferred to accompany the carol on a well-tuned guitar than on an off-pitch organ.”

Source: and

The words of O little Town of Bethlehem were penned by Phillips Brooks, rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity, in Philadelphia.

While on a vacation traveling through Europe and the East, Brooks described this experience in a letter home during Christmas week of 1865:

“After an early dinner, we took our horses and rode to Bethlehem. It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills… It is a good-looking town, better built than any other we have seen in Palestine. … Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. … As we passed, the shepherds were still keeping watch over their flocks or leading them home to fold.”

Three years later, in 1868, O Little Town of Bethlehemwhile meditating at home over what he had seen, the words of the carol took shape in his mind.

O little town of Bethlehem,

How still we see thee lie;

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth

The everlasting light;

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight.

A share of the credit for the popularity of the carol must also be given to the one who wrote the tune. Lewis Henry Redner, a real estate agent, was organist of the church that Brooks pastored, superintendent of its mission, and teacher in the church school. He later was coaxed to tell the story of the tune:

As Christmas of 1868 approached, Mr. Brooks told me that he had written a simple little carol for the Christmas Sunday-school service, and he asked me to write the tune to it. … We were to practice it on the following Sunday. Mr. Brooks came to me on Friday, and said, “Redner, have you ground out that music yet to ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’?” I replied, “No,” but that he should have it by Sunday. On [Saturday night] my brain was all confused about the tune. I thought more about my Sunday-school lesson than I did about the music. But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.

Someone who heard the song owned a bookstore and printed it on leaflets for sale. Six years later it was printed in a Sunday-school hymn and tune book. The rest is history!


God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen is among the most popular of carols. Several music historians have noted that each English village seems to possess its own variation of this carol. John Camden Hotten in Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (1905) wrote: “With regard to the text of this carol I may remark that nearly Old English carolersevery town in England, at each succeeding Christmas, supplies us with variations.”

God rest ye merry, gentlemen

Let nothing you dismay

Remember, Christ, our Saviour

Was born on Christmas day

To save us all from Satan’s power

When we were gone astray

O tidings of comfort and joy,

Comfort and joy

O tidings of comfort and joy

The carol is dotted with archaic words and phrases hard to understand—which comes as no surprise, considering that it probably originated in the 16th century. For instance, the first phrase and title: God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen. (Note the comma—it’s not “God rest you, merry gentlemen” but “God rest you merry, gentlemen.”) What is the meaning of “rest you merry”? That and similar phrases are found in half a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays. One Shakespearean scholar wrote that the phrase “was a common form of farewell … equivalent to ‘good luck to you.'” So the sentence, then, could be recast as “God give you peace and joy and everything good, dear gentle ones.”

Perhaps this song’s most notable distinction is that this carol is the Christmas carol of A Christmas Carol.

Charles Dickens wrote in his classic short story:

Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold. … The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge’s keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of —

“God bless you merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!”

Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.”

Ebenezer could have saved himself quite an adventurous night—if only he had heeded these words when he first heard them!


All of us believe in a virgin birth

Many skeptics point to the virgin birth of Jesus as an example of a Christian belief that is implausible and absurd.

Vince Vitale, a tutor at Oxford, has a response to this. One day it struck him that most atheists already do believe in a virgin birth:

● The atheist Princeton professor Peter Singer, in a debate with a Christian, was challenged to answer the question “Why are we here?” He responded:

We can assume that somehow in the primeval soup we got collections of molecules that became self-replicating; and I don’t think we need any miraculous or mysterious [explanation].

But molecules emerging out of some ancient ocean with ability to reproduce themselves—that leaves lots of room for mystery. In fact, that scenario sounds quite similar to a virgin birth.

● Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking attempted to propose an atheistic explanation for the universe:

[T]he universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.

But “nothing” normally does not bring something into being. This is far outside the realm of the ordinary. Is it a less miraculous birth than the Christmas story?

The fact is that we live in a miraculous world. Believers and skeptics alike are aware of this. It is therefore, as Vitale points out, not a matter of whether we believe in a virgin birth, but which virgin birth we choose to accept!

We can believe in the birth of an atheistic universe that is indifferent to us—a universe where “there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, … nothing but blind pitiless indifference” (Richard Dawkins). Or we can believe in the virgin birth of a God who loves us so deeply that he “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). Emmanuel, God with us.

Our joy and faith are embodied in Christmas lights

Lay bow to string and lip to horn
     And make our joy ring: a child is born.
Put pen to sheet and stick to drum
     And make our joy speak: the Christ has come.
Lift lights to eaves and voice in song
     Till each believes that the Son has dawned.

As I grew up, my family never had a Christmas tree and never decorated the house beyond a few candles arranged with sprigs of white pine or blue spruce from our yard.

But one year my oldest brother made a large star outlined with lights and mounted it on our front porch latticework. We had twinges of conscience: was it too gaudy? Was it a waste to use electricity to burn lights for no practical use? Yet it seemed a biblical thing to do, a witness and reminder of the star God had placed over Bethlehem to point to the Christ-child. Several years later my brother made an even larger star and placed it atop our farm’s tallest silo, aiming it toward the nearby town and highway.

The other year Karen bought a string of multicolored lights and we taped them around our front picture window. This year we added some lighted garlands to wrap the porch pillars and a long string of lights to hang under our porch eaves, and spent the better part of a Saturday morning putting them up.

It’s only a small porch. But is the lighting too expensive, too bright, too much?

No! This month’s issue of Christianity Today has several church leaders suggesting ways to root our celebration of Christ’s birth more deeply in our lives. Patricia Raybon says: Turn on Christmas lights. Plug in the bulbs and “light the night sky with electrified elation.” Tell the whole world, Look at our house. Look at our bright, happy season. Look at our Christ.

We have a true reason to light up the night. I like to believe that, on our front porch this month, our joy and our shouts of faith are getting embodied in some simple strings of Christmas lights.

Joseph Mohr of ‘Silent Night’

His name will forever be associated with the Christmas season. But at his birth in December 1792, it appeared Joseph Mohr’s name would be associated with nothing but disgrace.

He was an illegitimate child—his mother’s third. A child who might have been a casualty of abortion in today’s world. When Franz Joseph Mohr learned he’d gotten Ann Schoiber pregnant, he fled, leaving the mother to face the music alone, including a steep fine. She was a knitter who earned little. It would have taken her a full year’s wage to pay the penalty.

The town’s brutal executioner stepped into the picture. He would pay the fine and become the child’s godfather. He hoped by doing this to improve his own reputation. Little Joseph’s life now bore another stigma: godson of the hated executioner. He was banned from attending school or learning a trade.

But the boy loved to sing. While playing on steps leading up to a monastery, he was overheard singing by Johann Hiernle, a monk and cathedral choirmaster. Hiernle thought the boy’s voice so good, he could not bear to see it wasted. He found Ann Schoiber and arranged for Mohr to study with his elite group of students.

Hiernle’s kindness was not wasted. Mohr proved to be an outstanding pupil and mastered the organ, violin and guitar by the time he was twelve.

He was ordained a priest in 1815. It was while he was yet a young assistant in Oberndorf that he won lasting fame. He wrote the words to a new Christmas carol and asked the church organist, Franz Gruber, to set them to music—and perhaps helped him. On Christmas Eve, 1818, the two first sang what has since become the most popular Christmas carol of all time: “Silent Night, Holy Night” which has been translated into 200 languages.

In his last pastoral assignment Mohr opened a school which took in poor children. He gave virtually his entire income to this project and died as poor as he was born. But his life left the whole world much richer!

Adapted from an article at

Things can’t make someone happy

A story is told about a king whose son was deeply depressed. Every attempt to cheer the prince had failed. So the king summoned all his advisors to come and give their counsel.

After a great deal of discussion, they agreed that the best plan was to search the kingdom, find the happiest young man his age, and then remove his shirt and bring it back to the prince to wear. Putting on the shirt would transfer the happiness and cure prince’s depression.

The king’s counselors searched far and wide, conducting countless interviews. They finally settled on the one they judged to be the happiest young man of all. Unfortunately, they had to report to the king that he was a servant and did not own a shirt. There was no shirt to take to the prince.

The story, of course, is ludicrous. But you and I must be careful before seeing ourselves as superior to the folks in the story. We all too easily do the same thing.

It’s ridiculous to think that depression can be cured and happiness transferred by wearing a shirt. But, well, how often do we try to give happiness by giving the same thing that happy people in a commercial have? Or think that giving the same article or gadget that a smiling neighbor has will give joy to someone we love?

As we give gifts this season it’s good to be clear on this.

There is a role for presents at Christmas. A gift can be a way of celebrating our love, of saying “I’m thinking of you, I’m aware of your likes, your needs.”

But if our goal for giving a gift is to make the other person happy, we are as foolish as the king’s advisors. If the one getting our gift was restless and empty and unsure of our love before they received our gift, they will be the same twenty minutes later (or 20 hours or 20 days — however long it takes for the initial thrill to wear off). Pinning the happiness of someone we love on a material possession is indeed ludicrous!

The only proper response to the incarnation

Here’s a fun description in common, ordinary language of the wonder that this season should instill within us all!

                    Sharon's Christmas Prayer

         She was five,
         sure of the facts,
         and recited them
         with slow solemnity
         convinced every word
   was revelation.
         She said
they were so poor
they had only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to eat
and they went a long way from home
without getting lost. The lady rode
a donkey, the man walked, and the baby
was inside the lady.
They had to stay in a stable
with an ox and an ass (hee-hee)
but the Three Rich Men found them
because a star lited the roof
Shepherds came and you could
pet the sheep but not feed them.
Then the baby was borned.
And do you know who he was?
                           Her quarter eyes inflated
                           to silver dollars.
                  The baby was God.

                           And she jumped in the air
                           whirled round, dove into the sofa
                           and buried her head under the cushion
                           which is the only proper response
                           to the Good News of the Incarnation.

–John Shea, The Hour of the Unexpected

Gift giving of one’s self

Perhaps the most-anticipated part of the Christmas season is also the most-dreaded and difficult: gift-giving.

Loving someone can mean getting a gift for them. (Particularly from the Dayton Farmers Market–in the shops named after women at Trissels!) Again and again the Bible pairs love and giving. “God so loved the world that he gave” (John 3:16, see also Ephesians 5:25, Galatians 2:20). Yet too often we find ourselves in the maddening position of grappling over what to give a person who might already have anything that we come up with! It’s especially damaging when we use credit cards to buy now and pay later, perhaps with high interest and low self-esteem.

So what should we do?

Let’s remember that some of the most precious and memorable gifts involve giving of one’s self rather than purchasing something. Indeed, that may be the highest form of giving: when God “so loved” that he gave, the gift was himself. There’s a relief to be found in this too: when I give something that is uniquely myself, I need not worry that the person already has the exact same thing!

How about giving a coupon that the recipient can redeem for an uninterrupted period of your time. Ask “What can I do?” and “What are they passionate about?” and then offer to make time to do it with them. Those who are busiest may find that this is the greatest gift they can give.

Or give by using a skill you have. Bake something and then share both the goodies and the recipe. Make a record of your life these days for long distance friends and family. Build or sew something. Give a worn-out sister-in-law a coupon for babysitting or for helping with a project around the house. Write out a prayer, an affirmation, a joke, or reminisce a good memory.

Best of all, you’re not just exchanging stuff; you’re building relationships. Like God.