Behind the History and Meaning of the Christmas Carol “Silent Night”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

It’s one of the most emotive Christmas carols. It’s one of the deepest and loveliest, too. It’s “Silent Night.”

But what is the history and meaning of the song beyond its tender qualities? That’s what we’re going to dive into here today.

The Song’s History and Meaning

Composed in 1818 by Franz Gruber (not to be confused with the Die Hard movie villain, Hans Gruber) to lyrics written by Joseph Mohr in the hamlet of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria, “Silent Night” was first recorded in 1905. The holiday hymn was later declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, meaning it’s part of the cultural fabric of its origin place.

Originally titled “Stille Nacht,” the song was first performed on Christmas Eve in 1818 in Oberndorf at the St. Nicholas parish church. The village is located on the Salzach river in present-day Austria. In 1817, a young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, had come to the area. The year prior, in 1816, Mohr had written the poem, “Stille Nacht,” in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars.

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After Mohr met Gruber, the latter put the poem to music. Gruber was a schoolmaster and an organist. It was on Christmas Eve in 1818 when Mohr brought the lyric to Gruber and asked him to write a melody and guitar accompaniment for the evening mass.

While it is unknown what inspired Mohr to write the poem or to put it to words, perhaps it was the feeling of safety and security after the war—the silence of it all—that made him feel moved to honor the moment of respite.

The Growth of the Song

Recent river flooding had likely damaged the church organ. Repeated flooding would later destroy the whole building. (It was later replaced with the Silent Night Chapel.)

An organ builder who serviced the instrument at the Oberndorf church, Karl Mauracher, loved the song and took it with him home to the Ziller Valley. From there, groups of folk singers called the Strassers and the Rainers would learn the song and bring it to their shows. The Rainers sang it on Christmas a year after its composition in 1819. They sang it for Alexander I of Russia and sang it first in the United States in New York City in 1839. By the 1840s the song was well known.

Naming Controversy

Mohr’s original manuscript had been lost and, thus, Gruber was thought to be the original composer. Though those who didn’t know Gruber’s name assumed it was written by Mozart or Beethoven or another big-name classical music composer.

But in 1995 a manuscript, later discovered with Mohr’s handwriting and dated by researchers to be from 1820, reveals that Mohr wrote the poem in 1816 when he was assigned to a small church in Mariapfarr, Austria. It also states that Gruber wrote the music in 1818. Scholars believe this to be the earliest manuscript that exists of the song and the only one with the lyricist’s handwriting.

Translation

John Freeman Young wrote an English translation of the song in 1859, which is best known today. The version was translated from three of Mohr’s original six verses. The song is sung slowly, and intentionally, like a lullaby. To date, “Silent Night” has been translated into more than 140 languages with a Silent Night Museum located in Salzburg.

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Notable renditions include those by Percy Sledge, Mariah Carey, The Temptations (below), Elvis Presley, Josh Groban, Sinéad O’Connor, and Nat King Cole.

See the English lyrics below:

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!

Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

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