“Silent Night, Holy Night” – The Story of a Christmas Carol

It is probably the most famous Christmas song in the world – “Silent Night, Holy Night”. It has been translated into almost every language and dialect. Young and old know the verses by heart. The song has been passed from generation to generation, together with the numerous legends that surround this holiday song. But where does the famous melody come from and how did it come about that a simple Christmas song became an international sign for Christmas and peace?

First performance and backgrounds

The world-famous verses were first heard on Christmas Eve in 1818 in the Schifferkirche St. Nikola in Oberndorf near Salzburg. The assistant priest Joseph Mohr (1792-1848) and the teacher and organist Franz-Xaver Gruber (1787-1863) featured at the premiere. The lyrics to the song had been written in 1816 in Mariapfarr, also near Salzburg. Mohr first wrote the lyrics to the song, then asked Gruber to compose a melody for it in 1818.

Why Mohr commissioned the piece is unclear. It is speculated that the church organ was defective at the time, so Mohr had to think of something of his own. But no matter what the origin of the song, its effect is clear: This beautiful piece of music would go down in history.

One possible reason for the song’s success is the environment in which it was written. The year 1818 was shortly after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the reorganization of Europe following the Congress of Vienna. The ecclesiastical principality of Salzburg, which had lost its independence before, now also lost its secularity. Part of Salzburg was given to Bavaria in 1816, the larger part joined Austria. Oberndorf lost its city centre in Laufen when the Salzach became the state border. For centuries the small town had been prosperous thanks to the river and the goods (especially salt) transported on it. Due to the new borders, not only was the future uncertain, many workers were also facing unemployment.

Mohr survived the time of upheaval partly in Mariapfarr, which was under occupation by Bavarian troops, the rest of it in Oberndorf, where a large part of the population was once again unemployed and without prospects. The longing for peace and order dominated the conversation at the time. This political landscape and the sentiments surrounding it are reflected in the verses and are part of the special charm of “Silent Night, Holy Night”.

The creation of “Silent Night, Holy Night”

There are many legends telling how the song was written and why it was performed in Oberndorf on December 24, 1818. The actual reasons are difficult to discern. To this day, not all the details are known.

What we do know comes from two main sources. After some contemporaries questioned the authorship of Gruber and Mohr in the 1850s, Gruber published a document confirming the story of the Christmas song’s creation. Much earlier, probably between 1820 and 1825, Mohr recorded the text and the melody in an autograph. This is the oldest document in the song’s history.

The date of the first performance is confirmed in the Authentic Origin written by Gruber, although why the song was written is not mentioned. Gruber had him show Mohr his composition on December 24, 1818, who liked the melody so much that they performed it the very same day. The people of Oberndorf also took a liking to the song very quickly.
Mohr’s autograph was found only in 1995 and shed more light on the original version of the lyrics.

Both documents independently confirm that Mohr wrote the text as early as 1816 and later asked Gruber for an accompanying melody. Mohr was thus confirmed as the author, and Gruber as the composer. Over the years, researchers have repeatedly questioned the actual degree of cooperation between the two. Although Mohr was long recognized as the author of the lyrics and singer/guitarist at the world premiere, his full role in the song’s creation was finally confirmed by the discovery of the documents.

Versions and deleted verses

Originally, the song contained six verses. The first two and final verse are the version used by choirs today, which is printed in seven of the church’s official hymnbooks. It was the cantor Gustav Schreck (1849-1918) of Leipzig who was responsible for the shortened length. Schreck didn’t just want to shorten the song. With his conscious selections of verses, he gave the song universal meaning, making it appealing to a large and diverse audience. To this day, these three verses are considered integral to the worldwide Christmas tradition. It’s almost certain Schreck’s changes contributed significantly to this.

Besides the official version, other variations of the song have existed over the years, which swap the last two verses; the word ‘Jesus’ is replaced by ‘Christ’ and individual words are replaced by older forms or the text of the sixth verse is changed. However, only Schreck’s modifications have lasted.

Since 2006, all six verses of the Christmas carol are sung in the annual memorial mass in front of the Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf.

“Silent Night, Holy Night” – a success story from Salzburg

When the song was first performed in 1818, no one could have imagined how successful it would become. The small village of Oberndorf on the Bavarian border became famous as the origin of “Silent Night, Holy Night”.
The success of the song meant a lot to the residents of Salzburg. On the one hand, they had lost a lot in the preceding years and needed a push in the right direction. On the other hand, the song was a sign of hope and peace, two things that not only Salzburg but all of Europe needed to be reminded of.

At the beginning of the 20th century the original St. Nikola Church was demolished after suffering extensive flood damage. In its place, Oberndorf built the Silent Night Chapel, which very quickly established itself as a tourist attraction. In ‘Gruberhäusl’ (Gurubel’s house) Hochburg-Ach, parts of the Gruber family’s household contents are on display. The Franz-Xaver-Gruber-Friedensweg is also named after the composer. The name of the path (Friedensweg = peace path) is another attestation to the song as a symbol of peace. Among other museums, Mohr’s parents’ house is also open to visitors.

In 1943, the writer Hertha Pauli (1906-1973) described in her book Silent Night the story of the actual origin of the song, as it was thought in the USA to be an American folk song. In 2011, the song was added to Austria’s list of non-tangible cultural heritages by the Austrian UNESCO Commission and was recommended for the international list.

How a Christmas song became an international hit

The spread of “Silent Night, Holy Night” is attributed to the organ builder Karl Mauracher (1789-1844). While repairing the organ of St. Nicholas Church, he heard the song’s melody and brought it with him to his home town of Fügen. It was first sung by a church choir outside of Oberdorf in 1819.
Thanks to numerous song groups, the lyrics and melody first became known in Austria, then the entire German-speaking world. The text was first printed in Dresden in 1833, on a flyer with a total of four songs. The names of the authors faded in people’s minds and so the misconception that it was an old folk song spread. Due to an error by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia (1795-1861), who falsely attributed the song to Michael Haydn (1737-1806), the actual authors were alerted to the confusion. Gruber wrote the Authentic Origin confirming the origin of “Silent Night, Holy Night”. Today the song has been translated into more than 300 languages and dialects.

In 1905 the US-American Haydn Quartet recorded Silent Night, which brought the song worldwide fame. The song became so popular that former American President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) and the former English Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) sang the song together on Christmas in 1941. The song still enjoys enormous popularity in English-speaking countries, especially during Advent.
In the Ziller Valley, however, tradition still holds that the song is only to be sung on Christmas Eve.

Silent Night’s reception

As has been discussed, this simple holiday song became a worldwide hit within just a few years. This rapid spread was followed by a warm reception from classical music, pop culture and technical literature.
In the 20th century, Silent Night was widely embraced by the world of classical music. Composers such as Max Reger (1873-1916), Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998), Bertold Hummel (1925-2002) and Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) composed their own arrangements for the song. In pop music, parts of the lyrics or melody have also been used time and again, for example in Simon and Garfunkel’s 7 O’Clock News.
The song has even deeper roots in film and television. The story of the its creation has been made into a feature film three times already, once in 1934 in The Immortal Song, then in 1997 in The Eternal Song and finally in 2012 with Silent Night, the only American production. Two documentaries were made about the creation of the song: “Silent Night, Holy Night” – A Message of Peace from Salzburg, and “Silent Night” – The Story of a Christmas Carol.
The well-known production company Netflix commissioned the film The Christmas Card in 2017. This was first broadcast in 2017. In the film the song plays an important role and appears again and again over the 104 minutes.

The song also appears in myths and legends. It is said that during the First World War on Christmas Eve 1914, the men in the trenches between France and Germany agreed to a temporary cease fire in order to sing the famous Christmas carol together.