The Origin of the Christmas Carol "Silent Night"

Updated on October 22, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

"Silent Night" (Stille Nacht in its original German composition) was created in Austria during a time of turbulence; the Napoleonic Wars had just come to their destructive end. There are several versions of how the song came to be written. Some are more fanciful and appealing than others. What follows is a distillation of the most plausible stories with a small nod to artistic license.

Despite its age, "Silent Night" is still one of the most popular Christmas songs performed by church choirs.
Despite its age, "Silent Night" is still one of the most popular Christmas songs performed by church choirs. | Source

A Poem of Peace

Josef Mohr was a Roman Catholic priest in Austria. In 1815, he was assigned to work south of Salzburg in the village of Mariapfarr.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s belligerent ambitions had left much of Europe struggling to hold its social and political infrastructure together. Also, 1815 had been “The Year Without a Summer.” Mount Tambora in Indonesia had exploded and scattered volcanic ash around the globe causing violent storms and crop failure.

The people of Mariapfarr were hungry, poor, and in low spirits. In 1816, Father Mohr wrote an uplifting poem:

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!

Alles schläft; einsam wacht

Nur das traute heilige Paar.

Holder Knab im lockigten Haar,

Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!

Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!

This was translated years later as:

Silent night! Holy night!

All’s asleep, one sole light,

Just the faithful and holy pair,

Lovely boy-child with curly hair,

Sleep in heavenly peace!

Sleep in heavenly peace!

The real reason why Father Mohr wrote this poem can only be speculated about. Perhaps it was a reaction to the end of the conflict and a way of celebrating the peace that had settled on the land.

A New Christmas Carol

On Christmas Eve 1818, the parishioners in the village of Oberndorf were preparing for Midnight Mass. By this time, Josef Mohr was the assistant priest in Oberndorf’s St. Nicholas Church.

He took his poem to Franz Gruber, a musician and teacher in nearby Arnsdorf, and asked him to set it to music, which he did in a couple of hours. The church organ couldn’t be played on December 24th because, according to one telling, mice had chewed holes in the bellows. Other accounts say the organ was damaged when the nearby Salzach River flooded.

Oberndorf today.
Oberndorf today. | Source

More likely, the original accompaniment was always intended by Franz Gruber to be by guitar. So, along with the guitar and a choir, the two men gave the world its first public rendering of "Silent Night" on Christmas Eve 1818.

Some versions of the story have the priest and the musician putting their score away and forgetting about it. However, it’s nice to imagine those pesky mice played a role in saving a favourite carol for posterity.

Franz Xaver Gruber.
Franz Xaver Gruber. | Source

Silent Night Travels the World

Sometime in the New Year, master organ builder Karl Mauracher arrived in Oberndorf to repair the rodent or water damage to the organ in St. Nicholas church. While going about his work, he came across Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!

Mauracher was from the Ziller Valley in the Austrian Tyrol, a place that was famous for its choirs and itinerant folk singing groups. He took a copy of the carol back home with him and passed it around. The Strasser and Rainer singing families began performing the song in shows around Europe and its popularity spread.

In 1834, the Strasser sisters performed the tune for King Frederick William IV of Prussia. He was so captivated by it that he had the Royal Cathedral Choir sing Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! every Christmas Eve from then on.

German missionaries began translating it into local languages, and by late in the 19th century, it appeared as Unuak Opinak among the Inuit of Labrador.

In 1839, the Rainer family sang Stille Nacht! for the first time in America when they gave a performance outside New York’s Trinity Church on Wall Street. Twenty years later, the Episcopalian priest John Freeman Young translated the carol into English. Young was attached to New York’s Trinity Church at the time.

Silent Night Trivia

  • For many years, it was assumed that the melody of Silent Night had been composed by the likes of Beethoven, Haydn, or Mozart. It wasn’t until 1995, that an original manuscript was discovered that proved that Franz Gruber created the tune.
  • The melody used today is slightly different from Gruber’s original and is played at a slower tempo.
  • In 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized the carol as belonging to Austria’s “intangible cultural heritage.” According to the UNESCO citation, “For many, ‘Silent Night’ is the mother of all Christmas carols.”

The earliest known manuscript of Silent Night.
The earliest known manuscript of Silent Night. | Source
  • In Austria, tradition dictates that the song may not be played in public prior to Christmas Eve. Would that the rule applied to shopping malls in the rest of the world and, in particular, with regard to The Little Drummer Boy.
  • Josef Mohr was an illegitimate child and so required special dispensation from the Pope in order to enter the priesthood as though his conception was his fault.
  • The priest was greatly loved by his parishioners as he was devoted to helping the poor. However, the Roman Catholic Church seems to have had a hate on for him and started an investigation of him for neglecting his duties. The inquiry was halted when the accusations where found to be baseless.
  • There are literally thousands of arrangements of Silent Night from country and western to heavy metal.
  • In December 1914, German soldiers in World War I trenches began singing Stille Nacht! and British troops chimed in with Silent Night (re-enacted below). The singing led to the extraordinary and unofficial Christmas truce that lasted a few hours.

Bonus Factoids

  • According to the Austrian National Tourism Office Josef Mohr declined to have his portrait painted when he was alive. Sculptor Josef Mühlbacher wanted to create a statue of Mohr so, in 1912, he had the priest’s remains dug up and used his skull from which to create a likeness.
  • In the early 1900s, the entire town of Oberndorf was relocated away from the flood plain of the Salzach River. The original St. Nicholas Church in which the carol was first performed was demolished and a small chapel, Stille-Nacht-Gedächtniskapelle (below), built to commemorate it.

Sources

  • “It’s the Bicentennial of ‘Silent Night’.” Jason Daley, Smithsonian Magazine, December 18, 2018.
  • Stille Nacht/Silent Night – The True Story.” The German Way & More, undated.
  • “The Humble Origins of ‘Silent Night’.” Sarah Eyerly, The Conversation, December 19, 2018.
  • “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Bill Egan, University of Groningen, December 1999.
  • “Two Hundred Years of Silent Night.” Bethany Bell, BBC, December 24, 2018.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

Comments

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    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      3 weeks ago from SW England

      Yes, that was my favourite!

    • Rupert Taylor profile imageAUTHOR

      Rupert Taylor 

      3 weeks ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

      Thanks Ann. I really want the mice eating the organ bellows story to be true, but I don't think it is.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      3 weeks ago from SW England

      Fascinating details here; thank you for the education and all those stories.

      I love 'Silent Night' because it is so peaceful and calm. It conjures up a snow-covered scene where no footsteps have spoilt the picture.

      Ann

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