How the 'Silent Night, Holy Night' came about
A song with a message of heavenly peace that celebrates the birth of the Christ Child began its journey around the world in 1816. With more than 300 translations today, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht,” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”) has become the world’s most loved carol.
In 1816, when Father Joseph Mohr, a priest in Mariapfarr, Austria, wrote a six-stanza poem, “Stille Nacht” was born. Possibly, it was during Christmas Eve Mass, which included German singing and folk instruments that inspired him to write the song.
After transferring to Oberndorf in 1817, on Christmas Eve 1818 Mohr visited the home of church organist/schoolteacher Franz Gruber and showed him the poem. He asked Gruber to add a melody and guitar accompaniment so it could be sung at Midnight Mass.
Later that evening at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, the two men, a priest and a schoolmaster, sang the carol for the first time, backed by the church choir. Mohr sang the tenor part and provided accompaniment on guitar while Gruber sang bass.
According to Gruber in his “Authentic Account of the Origin of the Christmas Carol, ‘Silent Night, Holy Night,’” written on Dec. 30, 1854, the song was met with “general approval by all” in attendance, mostly shipping laborers, boat builders and their families.
In Austria today, “Stille Nacht” is considered a national treasure, and tradition says the song should not be played before Christmas Eve. Commercial use of the 186-year old carol is forbidden.
Since that time the song has been translated into more than 300 languages. In the mid 1800s, it was an Episcopal priest with Florida ties, John Freeman Young, bishop of Florida from 1867-85, who gave us the English translation we sing today.
The carol also enjoyed great recognition as early as the First World War, when soldiers on each side of the frontline laid down their weapons on Christmas Eve and sang the carol across no man’s land.