Blog

Silent Night turns 200: fascinating facts about the beloved Christmas carol

Billions of people still sing the song, which was first performed in a small Austrian church in 1818

December 19, 2018

An undated score of Silent Night by Franz Gruber, estimated to be from around 1860, with the title "Kirchenlied / auf die / heilige Christnacht" ("Hymn for the Holy Christmas Eve"). (Salzburg Museum)

It is one of the most beloved Christmas songs — one that has been performed in more than 300 languages and dialects.

But on Christmas Eve, 1818, Silent Night was being performed for the very first time.

ADVERTISEMENT

The song, which features a lullaby-like melody and a simple message of calm and peace, turns 200 this year, and the sentiment seems as potent and timely now as it likely did in a small Salzburg church two centuries ago.

So who wrote the song? And how did it rise to worldwide fame? Here are 12 fascinating facts.

It was originally written in German

The music was originally written in 1818, but a young priest named Father Joseph Mohr had written the lyrics — a six-stanza poem — two years earlier while working at a pilgrimage church in Mariapfarr, Austria. The song was written in German, and the title was Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. The inspiration behind the song is not known.

Mohr wanted it set to music so he could perform it at Christmas mass

In 1818, Mohr traveled to the nearby village of Arnsdorf to ask teacher and organist Franz Xaver Gruber if he could compose music that would accompany the lyrics, so he could perform it near the end of that night's Christmas mass. The music was written the same day.

It wasn't composed for organ

Although the song is regularly played on church organs around the world, it was originally composed for just two voices and guitar. There are many rumours about why this was — one of the most popular and persistent is that a hungry mouse damaged the organ bellows so badly that it rendered the instrument useless — but these have been shown to be untrue. According to Stillenacht.com, it is thought that the organ was playable, although in need of significant repair.

A rare early version of Silent Night, signed by the song's lyricist Joseph Mohr, is housed at the Salzburg Museum. (Salzburg Museum)

It was first performed Christmas Eve, 1818

Silent Night was first performed on Christmas Eve, 1818, at St. Nicholas Parish Church in the small town of Oberndorf  — today about a 20-minute drive outside Salzburg, Austria. Father Mohr played guitar and the choir sang the last two lines of the six verses in four-part harmony.

There was an authorship controversy

The song became hugely popular, but for several years it was unclear who had written it, so the Royal Court Orchestra in Berlin made a request to St. Peter's Abbey in Salzburg, because it was believed that Michael Hadyn, who was associated with that abbey, had originated the song. By chance, Gruber's son was a choirboy at St. Peter's at the time and clarified the authorship.

Two families of folk singers popularized the song and brought it across the pond

Karl Mauracher was an organ builder who serviced the church, and he loved the song — so much that he got a copy of the sheet music and took it home with him to Zillertal. There, two families of popular folk singers began including it in their performances, including one for Franz I of Austria and one for Alexander of Russia. They were also the first to perform the song in the United States, in New York City in 1839. 

The oldest known English copy was printed in 1840 in New York

In March of this year, researcher Martin Reiter found the oldest known published version of Silent Night outside of Europe, one that was printed in 1840 in New York. It was found with the lyrics and not the music in a book called Liederbuch für die Jugend, Nebst einem Anhange von Melodien — songbook for youth, with an attachment of melodies — published by Amerikanischen Tractat Gesellschaft, with the address of Nassau-Street 150.

Joseph Mohr's skull was exhumed to create a tribute

It may not be the way people would pay tribute to a famous songwriter today, but in 1912, sculptor and pastor Joseph Mühlbacher reportedly set out to create a monument of Mohr and Gruber — but Mohr had always refused to be painted, so there were no images of him. As a result, Mühlbacher arranged to have Mohr's skull exhumed. Even after the monument was complete, the skull was not returned to the original grave; rather, it was kept in Oberndorf for the construction of the Silent Night Memorial Chapel, and reportedly walled into the building. At the foot of the hill, visitors can see a cast of the relief.

Soldiers sang the song as part of the famed Christmas truce in 1914

By December 1914, World War I was raging — but along the Western Front, a miraculous thing happened: in the week leading up to Christmas, British, French and German soldiers laid down their arms, crossed into each other's trenches, played games and exchanged gifts. They also sang songs — one of which was reportedly Silent Night, which, by that time, would have been familiar to most of the soldiers, even if it was sung in different languages.

There have been many beautiful, and some really weird, renditions

There have been many famous performances of the song, from the Three Tenors to Michael Bublé to Faith Hill, but one of the weirdest almost certainly belongs to the just-released duet rendition by Canadian Star Trek actor William Shatner and punk pioneer Iggy Pop. We apologize in advance.

If you're in Austria, you're only supposed to sing it on Christmas Eve

Around the world Silent Night is played on holiday radio stations and performed at Christmas concerts throughout the Christmas season, but in the Austrian alps, there is a strict rule that it must only be performed on Christmas Eve. If it's performed at other times, Bavarian children are told, someone will die.

The version we hear today is not the original

To this day, the song is one of the most popular in the history of music, and an estimated two billion people perform it in more than 300 languages and dialects. However, the lyrics that most people perform today are notably different from those that Mohr originally wrote. Here are the original verses, as translated directly from German; most English versions today include just three verses: the first, sixth and second, in that order.

Silent night! Holy night!
All are sleeping, alone and awake
Only the intimate holy pair,
Lovely boy with curly hair,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!

Silent night! Holy night!
Son of God, O how he laughs
Love from your divine mouth,
Then it hits us – the hour of salvation.
Jesus at your birth!
Jesus at your birth!

Silent night! Holy night!
Which brought salvation to the world,
From Heaven's golden heights,
Mercy's abundance was made visible to us:
Jesus in human form,
Jesus in human form.

Silent night! Holy night!
Where on this day all power
of fatherly love poured forth
And like a brother lovingly embraced
Jesus the peoples of the world,
Jesus the peoples of the world.

Silent night! Holy night!
Already long ago planned for us,
When the Lord frees from wrath
Since the beginning of ancient times
A salvation promised for the whole world.
A salvation promised for the whole world.

Silent night! Holy night!
To shepherds it was first made known
By the angel, Alleluia;
Sounding forth loudly far and near:
Jesus the Saviour is here!
Jesus the Saviour is here!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Van Evra

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer for q. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.