Story Behind the Hymn
The world’s most popular Christmas carol, the 3rd best-selling single of all time, sung by two billion people every year in over 300 languages, had a humble beginning with two men from impoverished circumstances. The poem, written by Joseph Mohr, was abandoned by his father before he was born. In the late 1700s this meant that his mother would be fined a full year’s wages for her “carnal offense” of bearing an illegitimate child. Joseph was raised by his mother and four relatives in a small, damp room in Salzburg where violent crimes, hunger, and poverty ruled. Joseph was destined for a life of severe poverty. Yet, God provided a cathedral choirmaster who recognized his talent and paid for him to study music and the priesthood. As a young man, Mohr lived among a demoralized and traumatized people in the aftermath of the Napoleonic War. Natural disasters, hunger, poverty, epidemics, and hardships pervaded. Though the atmosphere was devastating, he emerged as a devout Christian and a passionate minister of God’s Word. He loved his countrymen.
One evening this 23-year-old sensitive, hometown preacher went for a moonlight walk looking over a quiet, winter-laden town with snow-crusted trees and houses. A town at peace; inspiration for him to write the poem that would “encourage peace and demand responsibility for the globe.” Two years later, on December 24, he handed it to his friend, Franz Gruber, the small village teacher. He asked Gruber to compose a tune for the guitar to accompany the words he had written. He wanted to surprise the congregation with a special nativity celebration that night. He and Gruber sang this song of peace and hope for the first time in 1818 at the St. Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf, Germany. Little did they know that this song would last for generations and spread across the globe.
Shortly after its performance at church, a repairman was working on the organ when he noticed the song. He asked to take it to his home village. He gave it to two families of traveling folk singers who performed it around Europe. Soon it spread throughout the world in churches and town squares. Nearly 100 years later, this beloved Christmas Carol brought German troops and British Forces together on Christmas Eve with the Christmas Truce of WWI. Soldiers in the trenches sang the carol in German and the British replied in English. On Christmas morning, “Merry Christmas” wishes were shouted on the battlefield. Soldiers left the trenches to meet, exchange gifts, take pictures, and play impromptu games of football.