The history of "Silent Night" ("Stille Nacht")

"Silent night, holy night": this is how one of the world's best-known Christmas carols begins in the original language and is sung in every possible language on all five continents. It is sung in every possible language, on all five continents. When and how did it come into being, and who is the composer of this famous carol - perhaps Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself? Let's take a look into Europe's past: here is the story of "Silent Night".

Fritz Brunthaler-December 24, 2022-Reading time: 7 minutes
Memorial Chapel

Memorial chapel of the carol in Oberndorf (Photo: Gakuro).

The historical circumstances

The year was 1818. The wars against Napoleon had brought great hardship to the people. The region of Salzburg, an ecclesiastical principality of the Holy Roman Empire, ruled for centuries by an archbishop, had lost its independence in 1805 and was completely impoverished. The chronicles relate that crowds of beggars roamed the streets of the city of Salzburg, asking the population for charitable donations to subsist. The consequences of the war were not only felt in the city and the countryside: destruction, plunder and death. 

The provisions of the Congress of Vienna of 1814-1815 draw the new border between Bavaria and Austria 20 kilometers north of Salzburg, through the middle of the town of Laufen, along the Salzach River, so that the small suburb of Oberndorf is separated from the city center. Families are torn apart and the town is impoverished, for the boatmen and shipbuilders lose what had been the basis of their prosperity for centuries, namely their privileges for the transport of salt down the Salzach to the Danube and across it to Hungary. Flood catastrophes and crop failures follow one after the other, such as that of 1816, which goes down in history as the "year without a summer", because the eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia has a negative impact on the climate all over the world. Uncertain times, poverty, hardship - what can give hope?

Christmas Eve, December 24, 1818

There is no definite proof that mice have gnawed the bellows of the organ in the church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf to the point of rendering them useless. The fact is that the organ, long in need of restoration, no longer works - and it's Christmas Eve! Auxiliary pastor Joseph Mohr, 26, is looking for a solution for the Christmas musical arrangement. He brings organist Franz Xaver Gruber a six-stanza Christmas poem to set to music. He had written it in 1816 in Mariapfarr, a place deep in the mountains of the Alps, when he was assistant pastor there. Perhaps the representation of the Infant Jesus on the altarpiece, with a striking curly head, inspired the verse of the first stanza: "Sweet curly-haired boy". 

On the same day, Gruber composed a simple melody for two voices and choir. "Silent Night, Holy Night" was sung after the Midnight Mass, by candlelight, in two voices by Joseph Mohr (tenor) and Franz Xaver Gruber (bass), next to the Nativity Scene of the church - which today is located in the town of Ried, Upper Austria - with the accompaniment of Mohr on guitar. The Christmas tree was still unknown at that time, and did not become widespread until the first half of the 19th century in Central Europe.

The inhabitants of Oberndorf - farmers, craftsmen, boatmen - celebrated Christmas by decorating their houses with coniferous wood and spruce branches. Then they would thoroughly clean all the rooms and go through all the rooms and the stable with a container of burning incense. In the evening they would go to church for Midnight Mass. There, these simple people of Oberndorf heard the song "Silent Night" for the first time, and it immediately touched their hearts: in those times of war, need and insecurity, it was a message of peace, recollection and salvation through the newborn Child: "Jesus, the Savior, is here!".

The people

Joseph Mohr was born in the city of Salzburg in 1792. He was an illegitimate child, but his mother was by no means a woman of light life, because at that time simple people could only marry if the landowner or the political authorities allowed it. Joseph was a gifted person, especially musically, and he was helped by spiritual lords. It seems that for this reason he had no choice but to become a priest. He never stayed long in one place as a pastor, perhaps also because of his fragile health, especially his lungs. He only stayed in Oberndorf for two years, from 1817 to 1819.

Because of his own experience, as a priest he was always attentive to the poor. When he was accused of buying a roe deer from a poacher, he justified himself by saying that it was for the poorest of the poor. In Wagrain, he sold his cow so that the children could buy textbooks. As a parish priest he liked to be with the people, he sat with them in the inn, played the guitar that he often carried with him. He did not live to know the fame of his song: he died in 1848 as a result of pulmonary paralysis, and is buried in Wagrain. It is not known exactly what he looked like, because no photo of him has been preserved.

Franz Xaver Gruber had, in some respects, a somewhat easier life than Mohr. He was born in 1787 in Hochburg in Salzburg. Thanks to his musical talent - according to tradition, he was already playing the organ in church at the age of 12 - he managed to convince his parents and, if not a professional musician, he became a teacher and performer of music, especially the organ. In 1816 he was an elementary school teacher and organist in Arnsdorf, a small village three kilometers north of Oberndorf, and later also assistant organist in Oberndorf.

From his three marriages - the wives had been dying - he had twelve children, of whom only four survived. Perhaps his love of music also helped him to overcome these losses, because for him "Silent Night" was not at first his great work: he composed several masses, which have now been published. In 1854 he was instrumental in clarifying the authorship of "Silent Night", when it had been assumed that the music might have come from Michael Haydn, who had been a court composer in Salzburg and younger brother of the better known Joseph Haydn. In response to an inquiry from the Royal Prussian Court Chapel about the authors of the song, he mentioned Joseph Mohr and himself, and pointed to the composition of the song on December 24, 1818. Franz Xaver Gruber died in 1863 and is buried in Hallein.

The song

When "Silent Night, Holy Night!" first sounded on the night of December 24, 1818, no one, not even its two creators Gruber and Mohr, could have imagined that it would become so well known and popular. A simple melody, adjusted to the instructions of the ecclesiastical authorities for the cultivation of religious songs at that time, in 6/8 time signature, for two voices and choir. It is not a liturgical hymn in the strict sense, so it was soon introduced into middle-class homes for the festive celebration of Christmas, to which the use of the cultured language instead of dialect also contributed. The melody has traits of both pastoral song and lullaby, and both are found in the "Sicilian" melodic type, of which sweet melody and oscillating rhythm are characteristic.

At first it was considered a "Tyrolean song", because the organ builder Mauracher from the Zillertal in Tyrol, who offered to restore the organ in Oberndorf in 1824, brought it to his homeland. Several singing families from the Zillertal spread the song: the Rainer family is said to have sung it there as early as Christmas 1819, and three years later also for Emperor Franz I of Austria and his guest from Russia, Tsar Alexander. The Strasser family, also from the Zillertal, manufactured gloves and combined fair presentations with musical performances. It is proven that the four Strasser children sang "Silent Night" in Leipzig at Christmas in 1831.

The Rainer family's singing trips took them to New York, where "Silent Night" was first heard in 1839. The song became even more widespread through its inclusion in various collections and among Protestant liturgical hymns, which is explained by the fact that the song's lyrics underlined less the strong Catholic devotion to Mary that was common at Christmas at the time. In the 19th century there were even critical voices from Catholic clergymen: about the text, because they said it was sentimental and tasteless, so it could not capture the mystery of Christmas; about the melody, because it was flat and monotonous, and because other religious hymns were preferable. But that could not stop it from spreading all over the world.


The church of St. Nicholas, where "Silent Night" was first heard, was demolished at the beginning of the 20th century due to constant flooding and the danger of subsidence. Since 1937, the octagonal Gruber-Mohr Memorial Chapel has been standing in a safe place in Oberndorf.

Translations and versions of the song exist in more than 320 languages and dialects. Usually the first, second and sixth stanzas are sung.

In the places where Gruber and Mohr were born and worked, in Salzburg and Upper Austria, there are museums and memorials to "Silent Night". But also in other places, including in the United States, in Frankenmuth, Michigan, there is an extensive archive related to the song, donated by the Bronner family, and on the adjoining property there are plaques with the lyrics of "Silent Night" in 311 languages.

In 2004, an asteroid was given the name "Gruber-Mohr". In 2011, "Silent Night, Holy Night" was recognized by UNESCO as intangible world cultural heritage.

The original text in German, and the text in English translation

We reproduce below the original text of "Silent Night", as well as a direct private translation, without rhymes or adaptations.

Original text by Joseph Mohr in German

1. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! Alles schläft; einsam wacht Nur das traute heilige Paar. Holder Knab im lockigten Haar, Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh! Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!

2. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! Gottes Sohn! O wie lacht Lieb' aus deinem göttlichen Mund, Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund`. Jesus in deiner Geburt! Jesus in deiner Geburt!

3. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! Die der Welt Heil gebracht, Aus des Himmels goldenen Höhn Uns der Gnaden Fülle läßt seh'n Jesum in Menschengestalt, Jesum in Menschengestalt

4. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! Wo sich heut alle Macht Väterlicher Liebe ergoß Und als Bruder huldvoll umschloß Jesus die Völker der Welt, Jesus die Völker der Welt.

5. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! Lange schon uns bedacht, Als der Herr vom Grimme befreit, In der Väter urgrauer Zeit Aller Welt Schonung verhieß, Aller Welt Schonung verhieß.

6. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! Hirten erst kundgemacht Durch der Engel Alleluja, Tönt es laut bei Ferne und Nah: Jesus der Retter ist da! Jesus der Retter ist da!

Private translation in Spanish

1. Silent night! holy night! All sleeps; only the holy couple watch in solitude. Sweet curly-haired child, sleep in heavenly repose! Sleep in heavenly repose!

2. Silent night! holy night! Son of God! Oh, how love laughs in thy divine mouth, when the saving hour sounds for us, Jesus, at thy birth! Jesus at thy birth!

3. Silent night, holy night! She who brought salvation to the world, from the golden heights of heaven lets us see the fullness of grace, Jesus in human form, Jesus in human form!

4. Silent night, holy night! Where today all the power of fatherly love was poured out, and like a brother Jesus embraced with benevolence the peoples of the world, Jesus embraced the peoples of the world.

5. Silent night, holy night! Having long since thought of us, when the Lord delivers from wrath, in the remote time of the fathers promised indulgence to all the world, promised indulgence to all the world.

6. Silent night, holy night! First made known to the shepherds by the Alleluia of the angels, it resounds loudly far and wide: Jesus, the Savior, is here! Jesus, the Savior, is here!

The authorFritz Brunthaler


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