Holy Spirit Province Saint-Esprit
Franciscans of CanadaFranciscains du Canada

Ordo Fratrum Minorum


Les anges musiciens - EyckOld Christmas carols, that we still sing today, come to us from the Middle Ages and especially from the 12th century. Initially, the Church had set aside the popular Christmas carols that she considered as coming from a pagan custom and which could not be included in the sacred cult. However, in the countryside, several very simple folk songs and songs for the Nativity were written and gained popularity. In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi introduced the popular Christmas carols in the worship of the Church during the mass on Christmas night in a cave in Greccio, in Italy. In agreement with papal authority, that night, the songs and the music accompanying this sacred event were vernacular songs. Since that time, the popular Christmas songs impressed the masses and so they began to be part of the Mysteries of the Middle Ages.

The custom of Christmas songs spread across Europe, from Italy to Spain, to France and to Germany where several popular Christmas carols were composed in the 14th century. Christmas songs of today often retain these medieval choral models coming from the tradition of these first Christmas songs. Over the years, the popularity of the Christmas carols and hymns expanded and as a result, today, we have extremely varied Christmas carols.

The best-known Christmas carol today in the world is probably ‘Silent Night’, which was composed in Austria. The story goes that a few days before Christmas, the organ of the Church of St Nicholas was shattered. It became obvious that it was impossible to repair it in time for midnight mass. The organist, Franz Gruber, asked the parish priest, Father Joseph Mohr, permission to use the guitar at the mass. He explained that he had intended to compose a very simple music but that he needed some form of accompaniment. Father Mohr agreed and he mentioned to him that he was trying to compose a Christmas poem, a poem that his followers could understand; because they did not have much education, like the shepherds who were invited to the manger in Bethlehem. The priest handed him a piece of paper on which was written a text that had twenty-six words in German: 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. There was no title for this very short poem. The organist began to work. A few days before Christmas, Franz Gruber had completed its melody. So at the midnight mass of the year 1818, in the Church of St Nicholas of a village of Austria, people sang ‘Silent Night’ for the first time.

“Glory to the Lord God in the highest and peace on earth to those of good will»: we find these words in Francis of Assisi’s Christmas Psalm: «Let the heavens rejoice and the Earth exult, let the sea with its fullness resound, let the fields and all that is in them be joyful. Sing a new song to the Lord, sing to the Lord all the earth! »

Georges Morin, o.f.m.