The story behind the classic Christmas Carol "Silent Night"

How poetry by Josef Mohr set to music composed by Franz Gruber became famous worldwide

"And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night" -- Luke 2:8

A broken church organ was the reason "Silent Night" was created -- How the world's most famous Christmas carol came to be written and set to music

While Barbara and I were serving as missionaries in Europe, we visited the small Silent Night Chapel near Salzburg, Austria. An older church building not far away which was destroyed by floods in the 1890s was actual birthplace of "Silent Night." Here's the story of how this most famous of Christmas carols came to be written:

In 1818, a roving band of actors was performing in towns throughout the Austrian Alps. On December 23 they arrived at Oberndorf, a village near Salzburg where they were to re-enact the story of Christ's birth in the small Church of St. Nicholas.

Unfortunately, the St. Nicholas' church organ wasn't working and would not be repaired before Christmas. (Note: some versions of the story point to mice as the problem; others say rust was the culprit) Because the church organ was out of commission, the actors presented their Christmas drama in a private home. That Christmas presentation of the events in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke put assistant pastor Josef Mohr in a meditative mood. Instead of walking straight to his house that night, Mohr took a longer way home. The longer path took him up over a hill overlooking the village.

From that hilltop, Mohr looked down on the peaceful snow-covered village. Reveling in majestic silence of the wintry night, Mohr gazed down at the Christmas-card like scene. His thoughts about the Christmas play he had just seen made him remember a poem he had written a couple of years before. That poem was about the night when angels announced the birth of the long-awaited Messiah to shepherds on a hillside.

Bas relief sculpture of Gruber and Mohr leading the singing
of Silent Night
Sculpture of Gruber and pastor Mohr

Mohr decided those words might make a good carol for his congregation the following evening at their Christmas eve service. The one problem was that he didn't have any music to which that poem could be sung. So, the next day Mohr went to see the church organist, Franz Xaver Gruber. Gruber only had a few hours to come up with a melody which could be sung with a guitar. However, by that evening, Gruber had managed to compose a musical setting for the poem. It no longer mattered to Mohr and Gruber that their church organ was inoperable. They now had a Christmas carol that could be sung without that organ.

On Christmas Eve, the little Oberndorf congregation heard Gruber and Mohr sing their new composition to the accompaniment of Gruber's guitar.

Weeks later, well-known organ builder Karl Mauracher arrived in Oberndorf to fix the organ in St. Nicholas church. When Mauracher finished, he stepped back to let Gruber test the instrument. When Gruber sat down, his fingers began playing the simple melody he had written for Mohr's Christmas poem. Deeply impressed, Mauracher took copies of the music and words of "Silent Night" back to his own Alpine village, Kapfing. There, two well-known families of singers — the Rainers and the Strassers — heard it. Captivated by "Silent Night," both groups put the new song into their Christmas season repertoire.

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.
 

The Strasser sisters spread the carol across northern Europe. In 1834, they performed "Silent Night" for King Frederick William IV of Prussia. He liked it so much that he ordered his cathedral choir to sing it every Christmas eve.

Twenty years after "Silent Night" was written, the Rainers brought the song to the United States, singing it in German at New York City's Trinity Church.

In 1863, nearly fifty years after being first sung in German, "Silent Night" was translated into English by either Jane Campbell or John Young. Eight years later, that English version made its way into print in Charles Hutchins' Sunday School Hymnal. Today, the words of "Silent Night" are sung around the world in in more than 300 different languages.

small Austrian church building
Original church building near Salzburg, Austria, in which "Silent Night" was first sung

Image sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent-Night-Chapel and https://www.stillenachtmanufaktur.at/de/geschichte/des-liedes/

The original song

arrow pointing right   See a copy of the song as originally written by Mohr and Gruber.

Want to sing "Silent Night" in another language?

arrow pointing right   Words to "Silent Night" in more than 100 languages, including Italian and Spanish click here.

Dave Hartley and Keith White playing "Silent Night" on pedal steel guitars

Live web cam from Austrian church

arrow pointing right   Each year on December 24th at 5 pm Central Europe Time (11 a.m. CST in the USA), the city of Oberndorf near Salzburg (Austria) honors the two creators of the carol "Silent Night", Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr. This celebration - audio inclusive - is broadcast live by webcam.

Presents or presence?

arrow pointing rightAre we more interested in His presents than we are His presence? [read more]

     -- Howard Culbertson


Christmas season resources:    Are you ready for Christmas?    How to say say "Merry Christmas" in 80 languages   Silent Night in Korean   Devotional: Sweet little baby Jesus     Angel: Good News for all the people

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