The Story of Silent Night

Legacy of a humble Austrian priest

On December 24th, the day before Christmas, in 1818 the young assistant pastor of St. Nicholas Church in the Austrian village of Oberndorf took a twenty minute walk from the church to the nearby village of Arnsdorf to visit his friend Franz Xaver Gruber. Gruber was a verger (lay minister) and the organist at St. Nicholas. He was also the schoolmaster in Arnsdorf. 

The young assistant pastor, Joseph Mohr had been assigned to the newly built St. Nicholas Church a year earlier after poor health had forced his superiors to remove him from his post as assistant pastor in the village of Mariapfarr and hospitalize him in Salzburg. Upon being released from the hospital he was assigned to St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf where he became good friends with Franz Gruber.

Gruber and Mohr Collaborate on the Carol

Like Gruber, Mohr had studied music. Mohr played the guitar and wrote spiritual poetry in his spare time to relax. The purpose of the December 24th visit to Gruber's home was to ask a favor. In his hand was a poem he had written while ministering in Mariapfarr. Now, he wanted Gruber to put the poem to music so it could be sung at the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass that night. 

According to a later written account by Gruber, Mohr requested that Gruber "compose a suitable melody for two solo voices with choir and the accompaniment of one guitar". Gruber wrote the desired melody and at Mass that evening the parishioners heard the beautiful carol that we know as "Silent Night" performed for the first time. 

No one knows what inspired Fr. Joseph to write "Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!". We also don't know why he requested that the melody be written for guitar other than the fact that Fr. Joseph enjoyed playing the guitar. The story about Fr. Joseph having written the carol and performing it with his guitar because the church organ was broken (some versions had the cause as mice having chewed through the bellows making the organ inoperable) has been proved to be nothing more than a fictional embellishment by later day romantics. 

Fr. Joseph Mohr was transferred from St. Nicholas parish in Oberndorf a year latter. He served in a number of different parishes and in 1838 was appointed pastor in the Alpine village of Wagrain where he served until his death on December 4, 1848. He was buried in the churchyard in Wagrain. 

Throughout his life Fr. Mohr remained a humble priest. He always described his collaboration with Franz Gruber to produce "Silent Night" that December 24th as one of the best times in his life and always gave credit to Franz Gruber saying, "The two of us did something for the Holy Night. I transcribed the words and Franz Gruber the melodie," 

While the story about the carol being created because the organ was broken is fictitious, the reason for the carol reaching the outside world has to do with a problem with the organ. On one of his regular visits to Oberndorf Karl Mauracher, a renowned organ builder who traveled regularly throughout the area building and repairing church organs, obtained a copy of "Silent Night". We don't know whether a copy was given to him or if he saw a sheet with the music laying near the organ and copied it. But he did obtain a copy and took it home with him and gave it to the Rainers and the Strassers, two families of folk singers who made a living traveling throughout the region around Innsbruck giving musical performances. "Silent Night" was added to the collection of songs they performed and the world was slowly introduced to this beautiful carol. 

The carol became known throughout the region and, in 1834 the Strassers performed it for King Frederick William IV of Prussia. The king was so taken with the carol that he commanded that his cathedral choir sing it every Christmas and this brought it to the attention of the rest of the world. In 1839 the Rainers came to America on tour and sung "Silent Night" outside historic Trinity Church in New York. 

Today Fr. Joseph's lovely carol is sung and enjoyed throughout the world.

Silent Night

 

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,

Shepherds quake at the sight.

Glories stream from heaven afar,

Heav'nly hosts sing Alleluia;

Christ the Savior is born;

Christ the Savior is born.

 

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.

 

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!

 

Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht! Alles schläft; einsam wacht Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.

Holder Knab' im lockigten Haar,

Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!

 

Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht! Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht Lieb' aus deinem göttlichen Mund,

Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund'.

|Jesus in deiner Geburt!

Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht! Die der Welt Heil gebracht, Aus des Himmels goldenen Höhn,

Uns der Gnaden Fülle läßt sehn,

Jesus in Menschengestalt!

 

© 2006 Chuck Nugent

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10 comments

Huntgoddess profile image

Huntgoddess 15 months ago from Midwest U.S.A.

Thanks, Chuck. I will do so.


Chuck profile image

Chuck 15 months ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Huntgoddess - Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you enjoyed this Hub and I don't have any problem with you linking to it from one of your Hubs.


Huntgoddess profile image

Huntgoddess 17 months ago from Midwest U.S.A.

It's so nice to find the history of something you have loved all your life.

Thanks for this. I'm wondering if I might link to it from one of my Hubs?

Up. ++++


Alissa 4 years ago

Thanks for this well written story. I'm giving my brother and sister ornaments to represent their favorite Christmas Carols, plus the story behind the carol, and I'll be printing this one for my brother. Thanks Again!


Deborah Brooks profile image

Deborah Brooks 5 years ago from Brownsville,TX

this is wonderful.. thank you for writing it.. I see this is an old HUB.. but it is great.. I love it.. one of my favorite Christmas songs. ever.. I voted up and awesome


PaperNotes profile image

PaperNotes 6 years ago

I only knew how to sing the carol but I never thought about the story behind it. It is very good to know about it, thanks.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 6 years ago from Canada

I love this story, no matter how many times I read it. Nicely done, Chuck!


Tony from India. 7 years ago

Thanks for sharing, Chuck!


Mr Nice profile image

Mr Nice 9 years ago from North America

Interesting topic, nicely done. Keep up the good work.


jimmythejock profile image

jimmythejock 9 years ago from Scotland

thanks chuck my favorite carol great hub.....jimmy

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