Behind the Christmas Hymn: Silent Night

Silent NightSilent Night has become a favorite Christmas Carol around the world. The hymn was never meant to be the legend it’s become.
Joseph Mohr was the assistant priest at the Church of St. Nicholas in the Tyrol Alps of Austria. Father Mohr and Franz Gruber, the village schoolmaster and church organist, were discussing the fact that they believed the perfect Christmas hymn had never been written.

On Christmas Eve 1818, Father Mohr received word that the church organ was not working. He decided to write his own Christmas hymn for the Christmas Eve mass that night. Upon completion of his words, he took them to Gruber. The organist responded “Friend Mohr, you have found it—the right song—God be praised!” Gruber then put a tune with the next. The music bears a strong resemblance to

Father Joseph Mohr

Father Joseph Mohr

Austrian folk music and yodeling.

The men completed the hymn in time for both men to perform the song at the Christmas Eve service. They were accompanied only by Gruber’s guitar. The hymn reportedly made a deep impact on the parishioners of St. Nicholas.

The song was never meant to be passed on to other congregants. Legend says that the organ repairman, Karl Maurachen of Zillerthal, came across the sheet music when he went to repair the organ. He was impressed with the song and spread a copy of the music throughout Tyrol.

Stille Nacht first appeared in a German Hymn book in 1838. The song was sung for the first time in the United States by a family of four children, the Strasser Family. They were called the Song of Tyrolean Singers and performed the song in 1839. John F. Young translated the German text into English. Silent Night was published in the English Sunday School songbook in 1863. The carol has since been translated into over 140 different languages.

Silent Night Holy NightOn Christmas Day 1914, during the height of WWI, the French, English and German troops called a Christmas truce. Silent night was the one carol soldiers on all sides of the front knew and sung simultaneously in the three languages.

The original manuscript is believed to be lost. In 1995 a manuscript was discovered in Mohr’s handwriting. Research dated the manuscript to circa 1820 and is the only manuscript still in existence in his handwriting. The manuscript shows that Mohr wrote the words in 1816 while serving a church in Mariapharr, Austria. According to the manuscript Gruber composed the music in 1818. This arrangement is now housed at the Museum Carolino Augusteum in Salzburg.

The Nikolaus-Kirche, where Stille Nacht was performed for the first time, was terribly damaged by flood damage and demolished in Blessed Christmasthe early 1900s. A “Silent Night Memorial Chapel” {“Stille-Nacht-Gedächtniskapelle”} stands where the demolished church was. A nearby house has been converted into a museum and attracts tourist from around the world throughout the year. According to The Silent Night Society there are “many romantic stories and legends that add their own anecdotal details to the known facts.”