The Story Behind “Silent Night”

The story behind Silent Night is part legend and part truth. We don’t know every detail, but we know some main facts that are undisputed. I hope you enjoy reading about the story behind one of the greatest loved Christmas carols.

Orberndorf, Austria* had gone through some very difficult times in nearly every way. The Napoleonic Wars has taken their toll, having only ended 3 years before. Due to the wars, land was divided and the city was cut in half. Its new border was the river just south; it was the river that had delivered salt, one the main trades of Orbendorf to various parts of Austria*. During the war the salt trade had declined and it got even worse when the city divided. An economic depression had struck the city. To make matters worse, that same Salzach River has recently flooded and the moisture seemed to have gotten to the church’s (St. Nicholas Church–how appropriate) pipe organ, rusting it shut.

December 23, 1818 was upon the people. It was evident that there would be no Christmas music for Midnight Mass the next night. There simply was no time to have the organ fixed. Legend tells us that the priest at St Nicholas, Father Mohr was about to head home that evening when one of the parishioners (a carpenter) came in from the cold excitedly informing Mohr that the carpenter’s wife had a baby. He asked if Father Mohr would come bless the newborn baby, and Mohr was happy to oblige.

After blessing the new born infant, he kissed him on the forehead and uttered, “Sleep in heavenly peace.” As he walked home from the humble cottage, a poem began to form in his mind. By the time he got home he knew he had to write the words immediately.

What we know is that staying up all night, Father Mohr penned the words of Stille Nacht. Some would say that the poem was already two years old by this time. It could be that it was and additions were made, that it was slightly edited, or simply just found (remember the story above is part of the legend). However there was no music as the organ was not working. He took the poem to his organist, Franz Gruber, a local school teacher who took the poem and put it to music. Unbeknownst to the parishioners, as Midnight Mass started, without music, A guitar began to strum. Father Mohr and Franz Gruber began to sing for the first time ever, the wonderful carol. The original tempo was much more upbeat than we play it today. That, along with the reality of having music at the Midnight Mass, caused the people to rejoice, applaud, and have a very happy Christmas.

The original version in Silent night had six verse, but it was cut to three when translated to English. Bishop Young did the original three verses (1, 6, and 2) in 1859; it was not until 2007 that William C. Egan translated the latter three (3, 4, 5). Here is the song in its entirety (as we know it, and then with the extra verses)

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,
Heavenly Hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Saviour, is born!
Christ, the Saviour, 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!

Silent night! Holy night!
Here at last, healing light
From the heavenly kingdom sent
Abundant grace for our intent
Jesus, salvation for all
Jesus, salvation for all.

Silent night! Holy night!
Sleeps the world in peace tonight
God sends his son to earth below
A child from whom all blessings flow
Jesus, embraces mankind
Jesus, embraces mankind.

Silent night! Holy night!
Mindful of mankind’s plight
The Lord in heaven on high decreed
From earthly woes we would be freed
Jesus, God’s promise for peace
Jesus, God’s promise for peace.

*originally written as Germany.

3 thoughts on “The Story Behind “Silent Night””

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.