Christmas Carols: The Story of Silent Night

Updated on February 9, 2015
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JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.

Like some of the most profound innovations and discoveries, the story of how Silent Night came to be written proves the adage - that necessity is often the mother of invention.

In the lead up to Christmas, a young priest approached the local organist and schoolmaster with an idea. The priest had written a poem to celebrate the birth of Christ, and he wanted his friend to try to write some music that would bring the words to life. The priest's name was Father Joseph Mohr and the organist's name was Franz Xaver Gruber. The year was 1818 and their collaboration led to the creation of one of the most familiar and best-loved carols of all time... Silent Night.

Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child | Source
Franz Gruber who wrote the music for Silent Night
Franz Gruber who wrote the music for Silent Night | Source

Why Silent Night was Written

Silent Night, Holy Night is the full name of the carol. Its original title in German is Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. It was written almost 200 years ago to be performed on Christmas Eve in St. Nicholas' Church in the village of Oberndorf, Austria.

The story of how it came to be written has probably been expanded, embellished and romanticised over the years, but there is nevertheless a ring of truth about it. It seems that a mouse chewed through the organ wires in the church, which meant the usual hymns could not be performed in the normal way. The Christmas Service was in jeopardy, and both priest and organist had to come up with an alternative.

As luck would have it, Father Mohr remembered the verses he penned a few years before. He showed them to Gruber and the two men worked on it together. They came up with a tune and harmony that could be performed on guitar and gave the first performance that very Christmas eve.

Franz Gruber's original musical score for Silent Night. A clear version of the score can be seen at http://silentnight.web.za/notation/stille1.gif
Franz Gruber's original musical score for Silent Night. A clear version of the score can be seen at http://silentnight.web.za/notation/stille1.gif | Source
British and German soldiers meet in No-Man's Land during the unofficial Christmas truce of WWI
British and German soldiers meet in No-Man's Land during the unofficial Christmas truce of WWI | Source

The Song Heard 'Round the World

Little did Mohr and Gruber realise that between them they would come up with one of the most popular Christmas Carols - and songs - ever written. There are believed to be around 300 translations of the carol worldwide, with 227 versions in 142 different languages. It's been recorded by almost every singer in every genre and in March 2011 was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.

As testament to its global popularity, the carol was sung by troops during the Christmas truce of World War I. They sang in English, French and German, all at the same time, because it was perhaps the one tune that was familiar to all of them. How poignant the words must have seemed at that particular moment:

Silent night, Holy night,
All is calm, all is bright

Silent Night performed by King's College, Cambridge

Silent Night Lyrics Verses 1 to 3

Here are the lyrics to the song:

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

Silent night, Holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
Jesus, Lord at thy birth

Silent night, Holy night
Shepherds quake, at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly, hosts sing Hallelujah
Christ the Saviour is born
Christ the Saviour is born

The Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf, Austria, where the annual "Silent Night!" Celebration and sing-along takes place
The Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf, Austria, where the annual "Silent Night!" Celebration and sing-along takes place | Source
The Silent Night Museum (left) and Chapel at Stille-Nacht Platz in Oberndorf, Austria
The Silent Night Museum (left) and Chapel at Stille-Nacht Platz in Oberndorf, Austria | Source

Silent Night Post Office and Stamps

Every year around Christmas time, residents of Oberndorf are reminded about the carol penned by Mohr and Gruber. That's when the Silent Night Post Office swings into operation. Letters and postcards that pass through its doors are adorned with that year's Austrian Christmas stamp and a special Silent Night postmark. Since 2004 the Silent Night Association has been publishing a new Silent Night stamp each year in honour of the carols' heritage and popularity.

Follow this link to see an example of a Silent Night stamp:

http://www.stillenacht.info/en/silent-night/post.asp?dat=index&id=46

Stille Nacht-Platz, Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria

A
Stille Nacht-Platz 1, 5110 Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Salzburg-Umgebung, Salzburg, Austria:
Stille Nacht-Platz 1, 5110 Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria

get directions

Silent Night a Source of Austrian Pride

As well as being distinguished with its UNESCO designation, this simple carol and its composers are celebrated throughout the year all across Austria. Visitors to Oberndorf can spend time in the Silent Night Museum and the Silent Night Chapel, located next to each other on Stille-Nacht Platz (Silent Night Place). A quick stroll north leads to Franz Xaver Gruber Strasse (street), or head south-east along the Salzburg Strasse that branches off into Joseph Mohr Strasse. Both men have lasting monuments to their contributions to Austrian history in the form of schools, museums and sculpture, erected to commemorate their meeting and collaboration in Oberndorf or the places where they each lived out the last years of their lives.


The Franz Xaver Gruber home, school and museum in Hallein, Austria
The Franz Xaver Gruber home, school and museum in Hallein, Austria | Source
The Stille Nacht fountain in Arnsdorf, Austria erected in 1963 to commemorate the centenary of Franz Gruber's death
The Stille Nacht fountain in Arnsdorf, Austria erected in 1963 to commemorate the centenary of Franz Gruber's death | Source
The Joseph Mohr-Schule in Wagrain, Austria
The Joseph Mohr-Schule in Wagrain, Austria | Source

Silent Night played on the Guitar

What's Your Favourite Christmas Carol?

Pick the carol from the list below that you like the most:

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Silent Night and the Meaning of Christmas

What makes this carol so powerful? It was written by a couple of nobodies, a poor, modest clergyman and a church organist. Neither one had a reputation outside the village, and neither one had the connections to get the song published and distributed to a wider audience. But it didn't seem to matter. The lilting melody and tender lyrics have transcended cultures and language barriers to help establish Silent Night as one of the greatest Christmas carols of all time.

For some people, Christmas represents a holiday from work and a break from the stressful routine of daily life. For others, it's the one time of year when families come together to enjoy each other's company and celebrate their special bond. Whatever they do and wherever they go, it's certain that, somewhere in the background, that familiar refrain will be heard:

Sleep in heavenly peace.

The Nativity scene as depicted by 16th century Italian painter Guido Reni
The Nativity scene as depicted by 16th century Italian painter Guido Reni | Source

Questions & Answers

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      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        2 years ago from England

        Thanks Nehemiah :)

      • profile image

        Nehemiah 

        2 years ago

        Congrats, John.

      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        2 years ago from England

        Thank you all for your great comments. So pleased to get HOTD on Xmas Day!

      • Venkatachari M profile image

        Venkatachari M 

        2 years ago from Hyderabad, India

        Very nice presentation of the Silent Night carols and its history and importance. A great awareness spreading article. Thanks for sharing it.

      • whonunuwho profile image

        whonunuwho 

        2 years ago from United States

        Wonderful work about the real meaning of Christmas that should always be the focus at this time of every year. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful presentation. whonu

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        2 years ago from The Caribbean

        Beautiful presentation! Congratulations on your HOTD accolade!

      • Kristen Howe profile image

        Kristen Howe 

        2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

        John, happy holidays on this fascinating hub about the story behind Silent Night, a timeless and classic Christmas Carol. Congrats on a well deserved HOTD on a terrific hub!

      • word55 profile image

        Word 

        2 years ago from Chicago

        Thanks for the sharing of history brother John, I love all the carols. They all project the spirit of Christmas. Congrats on HOTD! May God bless you, your family and everyone!

      • peachpurple profile image

        peachy 

        3 years ago from Home Sweet Home

        silent night lyrics are very meaningful and special to me.

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