Silent Night: the History of this best-loved Carol

Oberndorf, Austria

Oberndorf, Austria

The young priest was worried. Within 24 hours he was supposed to lead a Christmas Eve Mass, but he had no music. The Salzach River that flowed near the village church of Oberndorf, Austria, caused chronic moisture which had rusted the pipe organ. Without the organ there would be no music. And what was Christmas Eve without music?

Father Josef Mohr had but recently come to this tiny village. The night of 23rd December he had attended the town Christmas play. But instead of goin home afterwards, he had climbed the small mountain overlooking the town and soaked in the beauty and quiet of the darkness. It was nearly midnight before he reached his room. And so in the wee hours of 24th December 1818, he sat down to pen a new song, one which could be played on a guitar – at least that instrument wasn’t broken.

“Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” he wrote. “Silent night, holy night.” The night-time peacefulness of Oberndorf was fresh in his mind; beyond it he could imagine Bethlehem, bathed in moonglow:

                                                 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 words were flowing now: He could visualise shepherds quaking, shaken from the quietness of their vigil by the glories streaming from Heaven. He could see the Child’s countenance:

                                           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.

It wasn’t long until the simple poem was finished. Now, perhaps he could sleep.

Franz Xaver Gruber

Franz Xaver Gruber

The next morning he brought the poem to his organist, Franz Xaver Gruber. “I know it’s at the last minute”, he must have  said, “but could you put a tune to this song for Midnight Mass tonight? Something simple that I could accompany on the guitar?” Father Mohr was new to the parish, and to the church’s chief musician. But then, Gruber was being paid, and at that moment his beloved organ wouldn’t work. Gruber set about the task quickly and in a couple of hours he was done, just in time to rehearse with the choir before the service. Mohr sang tenor, Gruber sang bass, and on each of the six verses, the choir repeated the last two lines in four-part harmony. On that Christmas Eve, the whole of the little church rang out with a new song, “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!”, that was destined to wing its way into the hearts of people throughout the world.

A master organ builder eventually came to Oberndorf to repair the rusted organ , and there learned of the carol. He copied the song and doubtless sang it as he worked on organs in the neighbouring villages. From him, two families of travelling folk singers, similar to the Trapp Family Singers of “Sound of Music” fame, learned of the song and sang it in concerts all over Europe. In 1834 the Strasser family performed it for the king of Prussia, who ordered it sung every Christmas Eve by his cathedral choir. The Rainer family singers brought it to America in 1839. By mid-century it had become popular around the world, but no one could recall its composer.

The story of its fame was long to reach the tiny villages of Austria. But in 1854, Franz Xaver Gruber sent a letter to the leading musical authorities with his claim to have written the tune. In 1848 Father Mohr had died of pneumonia, but Gruber still had the original manuscript to show, and gradually he was recognised as the composer.

Sometimes the smallest churches make the biggest contributions. In this case, with God’s help and guidance, a most wonderful carol was presented to the world from a tiny congregation, one that just happened to be called St. Nicholas’ Church of Oberndorf.

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18 Responses to Silent Night: the History of this best-loved Carol

  1. NEO says:

    A wonderful story, very well told, my friend.


  2. kathleen says:

    Thank you very much NEO – I’m really glad you liked it.
    Do you sing this beautiful carol in the Lutheran church too?


  3. johnhenrycn says:

    I also think Silent Night is the best loved of all Christmas carols. It is the carol which has always, in my memory, ended Christmas Eve, whether in Protestant or Catholic churches. I remember singing it in the school choir, during Grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, and throughout the rest of my Protestant years thereafter – and now, since my Catholic confirmation – it’s still the high point and end point of our Christmas Eve services . I’m especially looking forward this year to joining my agnostic son (35 years old), who suffered a serious (stroke) illness earler this year, but who seems to have fully recovered (swimming and jogging again), in singing it with me on Monday evening, before proceeding out to shake hands with and thanking Father for all of his prayers when he (son) was, basically, at death’s door.


  4. afmm says:

    Thank you. I used to sign it as a lullaby to my daughter. And my father sang it to me as well as
    telling me the story of Franz Gruber and Fr. Mohr. The history of this carol was reported, reverently in the New York Times in the 1950s. Sadly the NYT would not do that now. Perhaps we should pray for the people who run the current NYT.
    @johnhenry So glad your son has recovered.


  5. johnhenrycn says:

    Hello, afmm:
    Thank you for that comment 🙂
    …which [my smiley, that is] reminds me of something sonny put to me last night – the new language of cyberworld will always involve emoticons. Is this a good or a bad thing, I wonder?


  6. johnhenrycn says:

    …actually, afmm, thinking about our conversation again – over two glasses of Reisling (house offering) – what he said was that he’d read somewhere that the next advance in philosophy will be through the use of emoticons. Go figure 😦


  7. johnhenrycn says:

    He’d read somewhere?” Right – now I remember: the current issue of Vanity Fair. No link available for us nonsubscribers.


  8. kathleen says:

    John Henry,
    I was very moved by the story of your son’s stroke, and seemingly full recovery! That sounds like a small miracle in itself – perhaps as the result of much prayer? – and I join afmm in saying how very glad I am.
    May the singing of this beautiful carol with you this Christmas, bring him the gift of faith too. Some more prayer is on the cards here I think! 🙂


  9. toad says:

    Kathleen neatly echos Toad’s thoughts, re JH‘s son.
    Toad has three sons, now all in their forties, none of whom, up until now, has ever caused their Dad even the smallest concern regarding any vital isssue involving body or soul.
    Maybe. Toad doesn’t know.

    If he believed in God, he might wonder why he, above others, had been so blessed.
    Because it doesn’t seem fair, on the face of it. But why repine?
    Surely we must embrace what we are handed by fate.
    And do the best we can with it.

    This is Toad’s real problem with Deities: Perceived unfairness..
    Some people are dealt such lousy opening cards that there’s no point in even playing the hand.
    They can’t anyway. Born in an Ethopian famine, dead within minutes.
    How could they do anything, anyway? They don’t even open their eyes.
    Happens every minute.
    ….Or so it seems to Toad.
    Maybe there is a reason. Mysterious ways?
    But that’s not nearly good enough, is it?

    For some of us, anyway.


  10. johnhenrycn says:

    “Some people are dealt such lousy opening cards that there’s no point in even playing the hand.”

    What an absolutely absurd comment! Think Paralympics. Think Downs Syndrome children and how they always soften our hearts.. Think paraplegics who paint magnificent pictures with brushes held between their teeth. Think technological advances on the near horizon that are going to free many of our “dis”-abled brothers and sisters from the shackles that bind them.

    God gave us the gift of disability – severe disability, even – to make us more loving people.

    Some of the sweetest memories many of us have are of cleaning the bums of babies who would sicken and die without our care. Some of the most precious memories I have, as a callow teenager working in my local hospital, are of cleaning the bums of old men who would have sickened and died without the care of people like me. We all die, but the point of “playing the game” is just that: it is a game, or a test if you prefer (as do I), of whether you know how to love or not. In that game, or test, some are pawns (the sick), some are knights and the rest are the audience. Which are you?


  11. johnhenrycn says:

    …and we will, all of us, eventually be pawns, Toad. Remember that, before suggesting some of us should fold before playing the cards dealt to us. Have you never heard true stories of people overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds? The name Helen Keller ring a bell? Joseph Merrick? Beethoven? George W. Bush?


  12. toad says:

    JH, Toad is not suggesting some of us should throw in our hands. There will be no re-deal in life, I know. And, as with you, the blind and paraplegic who accomplish so much, and people like Stephen Hawking, fill me with amazed admiration.
    And I admire what you did when young. I did nothing of the sort.

    I still say some people, like the baby of a freind of mine, who died, without ever opening her eyEs at a month old, don’t get a hand at all. That’s enough poker parable..

    “God gave us the gift of disability – severe disability, even – to make us more loving people.”
    The gift that goes on giving. I must part company with you on that one. Couldn’t He have just made us more loving in the first place? It all, as we agree it seems, is a game, or test. But not a fair one. I think. And it should be.


  13. johnhenrycn says:

    Kathleen @ 13:28 –

    The power of prayer is beyond question for people like you and me. The prayers of my priest are always most efficacious, whether he prays for his people (I remember a year ago when he came to our hospital’s Intensive Care Unit to administer the Last Rites to my uncle, who since has played a few rounds of respectable golf) or for the victory of Canadian sports teams.


  14. johnhenrycn says:


    Personal anecdotes are real lessons in life, when they are real, as are yours and mine.

    I was an orderly who worked in our hospital to make money. The admirable part of that experience was that God placed people in my hands to care for


  15. johnhenrycn says:

    [oops… not sure what happened there…]

    What I was saying was this: I was an orderly working in our local hospital to make money, but who treated people with respect and who honoured their dignity whether they were on death’s door or in the morgue.

    Concerning your comment about “the baby of a friend of mine, who died, without ever opening her eyes at a month old”, I offer this, my friend: my daughter has a close friend who gave birth this year to a child who will spend the rest of his life in hospital, but he may live for many, many years. Like you say (I think) his parents should not throw in their hands; but in your opinion, since the child will never get out of hospital, what should be done with him? And more germane to your philosophy, what use is he?


  16. toad says:

    “And more germane to your philosophy, what use is he?”
    More germane than that, to me, is what use am I?
    Very hard question for me.
    To keep my dogs amused, possibly.
    Easy for a Catholic, though, I suppose.
    What should be done with the child? As much as we can, surely? It’s generally unwise to say “never” but sometimes, I sppose it must be so. But if he lives years in hospital, he might do a great many good things.
    We are back to God’s amorphous plan again, it seems.


  17. johnhenrycn says:

    You speak wisely (I think)


  18. toad says:

    Apropos of not much, ‘tho regarding “amusing my dogs,” a pilgrim said to me, “Do all those dogs belong to you?”
    “No, I belong to them,” I said.


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