Silent Night’s bicentennial


Staff Reports

The Conversation

The humble origins of ‘Silent Night’

December 19, 2018


Sarah Eyerly

Assistant Professor of Musicology and Director of the Early Music Program, Florida State University

Disclosure statement

Sarah Eyerly does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Partners: Florida State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

One of the world’s most famous Christmas carols, “Silent Night,” celebrates its 200th anniversary this year.

Over the centuries, hundreds of Christmas carols have been composed. Many fall quickly into obscurity.

Not “Silent Night.”

Translated into at least 300 languages, designated by UNESCO as a treasured item of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and arranged in dozens of different musical styles, from heavy metal to gospel, “Silent Night” has become a perennial part of the Christmas soundscape.

Its origins – in a small Alpine town in the Austrian countryside – were far humbler.

As a musicologist who studies historical traditions of song, the story of “Silent Night” and its meteoric rise to worldwide fame has always fascinated me.

Fallout from war and famine

The song’s lyrics were originally written in German just after the end of the Napoleonic Wars by a young Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr.

In the fall of 1816, Mohr’s congregation in the town of Mariapfarr was reeling. Twelve years of war had decimated the country’s political and social infrastructure. Meanwhile, the previous year – one historians would later dub “The Year Without a Summer” – had been catastrophically cold.

The eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in 1815 had caused widespread climate change throughout Europe. Volcanic ash in the atmosphere caused almost continuous storms – even snow – in the midst of summer. Crops failed and there was widespread famine.

Mohr’s congregation was poverty-stricken, hungry and traumatized. So he crafted a set of six poetic verses to convey hope that there was still a God who cared.

“Silent night,” the German version states, “today all the power of fatherly love is poured out, and Jesus as brother embraces the peoples of the world.”

A fruitful collaboration

Mohr, a gifted violinist and guitarist, could have probably composed the music for his poem. But instead, he sought help from a friend.

In 1817, Mohr transferred to the parish of St. Nicholas in the town of Oberndorf, just south of Salzburg. There, he asked his friend Franz Xaver Gruber, a local schoolteacher and organist, to write the music for the six verses.

On Christmas Eve, 1818, the two friends sang “Silent Night” together for the first time in front of Mohr’s congregation, with Mohr playing his guitar.

The song was apparently well-received by Mohr’s parishioners, most of whom worked as boat-builders and shippers in the salt trade that was central to the economy of the region.

The melody and harmonization of “Silent Night” is actually based on an Italian musical style called the “siciliana” that mimics the sound of water and rolling waves: two large rhythmic beats, split into three parts each.

In this way, Gruber’s music reflected the daily soundscape of Mohr’s congregation, who lived and worked along the Salzach River.

‘Silent Night’ goes global

But in order to become a worldwide phenomenon, “Silent Night” would need to resonate far beyond Oberndorf.

According to a document written by Gruber in 1854, the song first became popular in the nearby Zillertal valley. From there, two traveling families of folk singers, the Strassers and the Rainers, included the tune in their shows. The song then became popular across Europe, and eventually in America, where the Rainers sang it on Wall Street in 1839.

At the same time, German-speaking missionaries spread the song from Tibet to Alaska and translated it into local languages. By the mid-19th century, “Silent Night” had even made its way to subarctic Inuit communities along the Labrador coast, where it was translated into Inuktitut as “Unuak Opinak.”

The lyrics of “Silent Night” have always carried an important message for Christmas Eve observances in churches around the world. But the song’s lilting melody and peaceful lyrics also reminds us of a universal sense of grace that transcends Christianity and unites people across cultures and faiths.

Perhaps at no time in the song’s history was this message more important than during the Christmas Truce of 1914, when, at the height of World War I, German and British soldiers on the front lines in Flanders laid down their weapons on Christmas Eve and together sang “Silent Night.”

The song’s fundamental message of peace, even in the midst of suffering, has bridged cultures and generations. Great songs do this. They speak of hope in hard times and of beauty that arises from pain; they offer comfort and solace; and they are inherently human and infinitely adaptable.

So, happy anniversary, “Silent Night.” May your message continue to resonate across future generations.

The Conversation

Can your heart grow three sizes? A doctor reads ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’

December 16, 2018


Richard Gunderman

Chancellor’s Professor of Medicine, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy, Indiana University

Disclosure statement

Richard Gunderman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


Indiana University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

At the beginning of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the green, pot-bellied, feline-faced Grinch is a bitter, foul-tempered misanthrope whose heart is “two sizes too small.” In the middle of the story, he plots to steal all the Christmas gifts in Whoville and toss them from a cliff. At the end, having learned that stealing the presents does not destroy the Whos’ fellowship and joy, he begins to see the deeper meaning of the holiday. He has a change of heart, and when he returns their gifts, his heart grows three sizes.

As a physician, I know that heart size matters. Having always assumed that bigger muscles are better muscles, in medical school I was surprised to learn that cardiomegaly, the medical term for a large heart, is in fact a sign of disease – most commonly an indicator of heart failure, a condition that afflicts nearly 6 million U.S. adults. The heart gets bigger because, as its ability to pump blood begins to decline, it allows its muscle fibers to be stretched more, like a spring, in order to recoil with greater force.

Of course, when Dr. Seuss described the size of the Grinch’s heart, he did not have in mind a medical condition. Instead he was indicating a metaphorical failure of the heart, an organ which has often been regarded as the center of affection and the seat of goodness. But just who was this “Dr.” Seuss, how did he come to be writing and illustrating children’s books, and what was he trying to get across in his strange little tale about the people of Whoville and their delightfully diabolical nemesis, the Grinch?

Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss, also known as Theodor Seuss Geisel, was the son of Henrietta (née Seuss) and Theodor Geisel. Born in Massachusetts in 1904, he graduated from Dartmouth College and then attended Oxford University. Working for a time as an illustrator for popular magazines and advertising campaigns, he also produced films for the U.S. Army. He published his first children’s book in 1937, and it was 20 years later that “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” first appeared.

Geisel’s 60-plus books have sold over 650 million copies and been translated into at least 17 languages, making him one of the best-selling children’s authors of all time. In addition, his characters have spawned television shows, films and a Broadway musical. Though Geisel left Oxford before receiving his degree, in 1956 Dartmouth awarded him an honorary doctorate, legitimizing “Dr. Seuss.” In 2012, it named its medical school the Geisel School of Medicine.

The Grinch

The 1966 television adaptation, which featured Boris Karloff as both the narrator and the voice of the Grinch, included the song, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

Thurl Ravenscroft sang the Grinch song in the 1966 TV special.

The Grinch’s heart figures prominently in the lyrics, which include the lines, “Your heart’s an empty hole,” “Your heart’s a dead tomato splotched with moldy purple spots,” and “Your heart is full of unwashed socks.” The book offers some clues as to how the Grinch’s heart came to be in such sorry shape.

Perhaps drawing on Charles Dickens’ portrait of Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” Seuss paints a creature who has been living in near-complete isolation for many years – in the Grinch’s case, 53 years atop a lonely cliff overlooking the town. Every year, he observes the people of Whoville celebrating the holiday, and the sounds of bells ringing and the singing of Christmas carols has become positively unbearable to him.

Like Scrooge, who considers Christmas a “humbug,” the Grinch believes that the festive spirit of the holiday is a mere fraud, a thin veneer of rejoicing that can be easily ripped away by depriving the Whos of the trimmings of the season. To his surprise, however, relieving them of all the gifts they give and hope to receive does not dampen their holiday cheer. Even after waking to find no presents under the tree, they join together in a joyous Christmas song.

The message

Instead of destroying the spirit of the holiday by stripping away its trappings, the Grinch, to his surprise, ends up purifying and amplifying it. In doing so, he echoes the sentiments of his creator, who at the age of 53 was brushing his teeth one 26th of December and “noticed a very Grinch-ish countenance in the mirror. It was Seuss! So I wrote about my sour friend, the Grinch, to see if I could rediscover something about Christmas that obviously I’d lost.”

The idea that the Christmas holiday has built up so many commercial accretions that its essential meaning has become obscured is not a new one. Nearly 500 years ago, the reformist theologian John Calvin famously wrote that, because the birth memorialized in Christmas is of the utmost importance, earthly things – “all enjoyments, all honors, all things desirable” – must not be allowed to supersede its holy meaning. Genuine celebration is impossible unless it is focused on the real cause for joy.

Geisel, the grandson of four German immigrants whose upbringing was steeped in Lutheranism, knew this tradition well. What matters most about Christmas is not the merchandise in the shops or the presents under the tree, but what is in the heart of the those who rejoice in the true meaning of the holiday – the idea that generosity and love pulse at the very core of creation, and that it is in acknowledging what we have received that we open up ourselves up fully to sharing and fellowship.

To be sure, we can do a lot to promote cardiac health by avoiding smoking, maintaining physical fitness, and eating right. But when we talk about undergoing a change of heart or getting our heart in the right place, we have in mind more than a biological pump that needs fuel. We are talking about what it means to be human, who we are as human beings, and what kind of people we are aspiring to become. As the Grinch discovers, a fully human life is possible only for those whose hearts are big and full.

The Conversation

How to handle the return of a long-lost family member during the holidays

December 18, 2018


Annmarie Cano

Professor of Psychology and Associate Provost for Faculty Development and Faculty Success, Wayne State University

Disclosure statement

Annmarie Cano received funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Partners: Wayne State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

Humans are social animals who crave connection with others. It’s a drive that seems hard-wired into our systems so that when we experience rejection or estrangement from others, the experience can feel much like physical pain.

The desire to avoid these painful feelings may be why many people go out of their way to reconnect with wayward family members during the holidays, even if this reconnection risks discomfort, hurt feelings or disappointment. This does not mean that we should avoid welcoming home family members but suggests it does mean that a dose of realistic expectations, with some proven techniques, can make for more peaceful holiday visits with estranged family members.

As a clinical psychologist and researcher who studies couples and families with chronic health problems, I often hear from people who feel like they are the only ones who have family relationships that have gone awry. Yet, they have more company than they realize, and there are strategies to cope.

An undesirable distance

Many people experience tense family relationships from time to time. Estrangement is a more prolonged condition that consists of physical or emotional distancing from one or more family members that is not mutually desired. Family estrangement is relatively common, with 4 to 10 percent of adults reporting distancing behaviors between adult children and their parents.

The numbers are likely to be higher when examining other family relationships, such as sibling relationships and when considering the large numbers of families that are affected by problems that may contribute to estrangement. For instance, alcohol and drug addiction, a common trigger of estrangement, affects the lives not only of the person with the addiction but also of 100 million adult family members globally.

In addition to addictions, parents with estranged adult children also blame estrangement on problems such as chronic lying and problematic relationships with people outside the family.

Estrangement can go both ways

Yet, it is not always the behavior of children that contribute to estrangement. Adult children report actively distancing themselves from parents they perceive as judgmental, narcissistic or abusive. Thus, estrangement can serve a protective function, allowing affected people the emotional space to care for themselves and decide how to navigate their relationships.

While distancing oneself from a family member may be a healthy strategy for some people, it can also contribute to feelings of loss, distress and stigmatization. Why is this the case? One explanation is that many people deem family ties as permanent ties, worthy of respect and care. Expressions like “blood is thicker than water” and “charity begins at home” symbolize the importance of family ties and the need to protect them at all costs. These strong cultural messages can contribute to feelings of guilt and attempts to reconcile, especially when friends and relatives push reconciliation, a strategy that is not recommended unless both parties wish to do so.

As shown in addictions research, family members can benefit when they nonjudgmentally explore the pros and cons of different types of engagement with their loved ones. For instance, they can take a zero tolerance approach, such as barring the loved one from the house, remain silent in the face of problematic behavior, or distance themselves from the loved one. Finding people on whom to rely for support can also provide relief to families who are considering welcoming home estranged family members.

Building bridges and gingerbread houses

But what other strategies can be used by loved ones when welcoming a family member with whom they share a troubled relationship? Much of the advice for handling stress around the holidays is fitting in this situation. In addition, there are several strategies based on psychological therapies that may be useful:

Be honest and realistic with yourself

What is it that you want to achieve by reconnecting with estranged family members over the holidays? Are you looking for a brief, nonthreatening together time, the first steps to rebuild a relationship? Based on your prior interactions with your family members and reflecting on why the estrangement happened, how likely is it that this will happen? Might you need to change your expectations? Or are there certain things you can do to add structure and reduce the likelihood of greater distancing? For instance, if you are concerned about sensitive topics that might trigger angry and hurt feelings, perhaps build in an activity, a project such as making a gingerbread house together or playing games to take the focus away from past hurts or rehashing negative events. If alcohol use or abuse has contributed to the estrangement, consider serving a variety of non-alcoholic beverages instead.

Develop the capacity to tolerate distress

When we avoid how we feel because it is painful, we may sometimes act in ways that may drive others further away. Distress tolerance is essential to counteract the likelihood of hurtful exchanges. One way of building the capacity to tolerate distress is mindful awareness practices including meditation, short breathing exercises, or mindful and intentional focus on activities like walking and listening to music. These activities can build up distress tolerance prior to gathering with family members but also during family gatherings. For instance, one could retreat to the kitchen to mindfully chop vegetables or wash the dishes, or excuse oneself to take a brief walk.

Pay attention to your loved ones

Mindful awareness can also be directed to family members. In my own research and clinical practice with couples coping with challenging health problems, emotional distancing often happens when family members do not accept their loved ones’ painful emotions as valid or real. Emotional validating responses such as asking questions about how a loved one is feeling and reflecting back the feeling or experience – phrases such as “That sounds tough,” or “I am sorry that you’re feeling this way” – express care and concern, and are related to better personal and relationship well-being. Emotional validation is not the same as agreeing with their choices or why they feel the way they do. Therapies to improve emotional validation are promising treatments for couples and families experiencing emotional distance, though they remain to be tested in cases of estrangement.

Practice gratitude and, if possible, forgive

Whether it is possible to welcome back family members or be welcomed back yourself, it is still possible to express gratitude for those people who bring you joy or have helped you learn something important. Acts of gratitude are associated with well-being and may help focus on the positive aspects of difficult relationships. When that is not possible, appreciate the goodness in life rather than focus on relationships gone wrong. Perhaps the most difficult of all is forgiving those from whom we feel alienated. Forgiveness can heal the pain associated with memories of betrayal and difficult relationships and promote well-being. Yet, no one should feel shame or beat themselves up for not being able to forgive.

Start new traditions

It may not be possible to salvage family relationships; perhaps, it is just too risky to engage with an estranged family member. In these cases, consider starting new traditions to celebrate the holidays, and find the social connection you desire. Celebrate at home with friends, have personal retreat time, or take a trip. It is not necessary to wait for the holidays to start new traditions. The Family Dinner Project has resources for creating mealtime rituals to create and sustain mealtime rituals to promote healthier bodies and relationships.

The holidays, a generally optimistic time, may be just the right time to reconnect with family members with whom we are distant. It is also a time to take care of ourselves, experience joy, and recharge for the year ahead. It is possible to do both with planning and preparation.

Staff Reports