Minnesota family's ties to 'Silent Night' lyricist make performing holiday classic extra special
RED WING, Minn. - When Josef Mohr wrote the lyrics to “Silent Night” in Austria in 1818, he could have had no idea that three generations of his descendents would be proudly singing the song in Red Wing 200 years later.
In a ceremony Sunday, Dec. 16, at United Lutheran Church, singers, wearing traditional clothing from the country they represented, sang the song in four languages.
Kristianna and Franz Harris sang in German, Emily Christianson sang in Norwegian, Jeanette Santiago sang in Spanish, and the choir and congregation sang in English.
The song, first performed in Austria on Dec. 24, 1818, “slowly made its way into other parts of Europe and on to the rest of the world,” said Gretchen Anderson, music director at United Lutheran Church. “Now it is being sung in over 300 different languages and dialects.”
“‘Silent Night’ has been a song that my family has held very close to our hearts for as long as I can remember,” said Franz Harris. “It is one of those songs that whenever we hear it, we are overcome with a warm sense of pride.”
Former Red Wing Mayor Arnold Kosec was the third-great-nephew of Josef Mohr. Two of his sons, Walter and Thomas Kosec, still live in Red Wing, as does Thomas’ daughter, Dodie Kosec Harris, and her children Kristianna and Franz Harris.
“Our grandfather Thomas Kosec is where the connection comes to us,” Franz said. “We love to sing it for him, because we know how proud it makes him. The song is so well known around the world, and it is fun to know the connection I have being the sixth-great-nephew of Father Josef Mohr.”
Kristianna Harris knew as a young girl that she was related to the songwriter, but didn’t really understand what that meant until an incident when she was in the choir at Luther College.
“One year we sang ‘Silent Night’ as our candle-lighting piece during our Christmas at Luther concert,” Kristianna said. “I was so excited, and could not wait to share my relationship to the song with everyone. I remember looking up as we practiced it with candles for the first time, and I just had to stop singing to listen and watch.”
She said hundreds of singers and musicians were singing and playing the song written by her great uncle.
“I was instantly overcome with emotions,”she said. “To think that this song originated from such a small town, written by my uncle is just amazing. The feeling of performing it and singing it is something that I really cannot put into words.”
A second event with the song made an even bigger impression on Kristianna. Last year, she and Franz were asked to sing at a candle service in Frontenac. Her Opa - German for grandfather - Thomas Kosec was in the audience, and they decided to end the evening with “Silent Night,” but did not tell him.
“I introduced the song by explaining our relationship to ‘Silent Night’ and Father Mohr,” Kristianna said. “We decided to perform the song with the guitar as it was originally done. We started singing the song, and I looked up from my music to see tears rolling down my Opa’s face. I instantly started to cry and had a hard time finishing the song. To see the emotion pour out of his face made me realize how special the song really is and what it really means to my family.”