There are several variations on the story of the writing of this hymn, but they all center on the little Church of St. Nicholas in Obendorf, a village near Salzburg, Austria, on Christmas Eve, 1818—and they all recount a church organ that wouldn’t play and a priest who was determined not to let the broken organ spoil the Christmas Eve service.
In one telling of the story, a band of roving actors came to Obendorf with their Christmas play, which so inspired Fr. Joseph Mohr that he wrote this song.
In another telling of the story, when Fr. Mohr discovered that the organ was broken, he remembered a poem that he had written two years earlier. He took the poem to the church organist, Franz Gruber, who set it to music.
But the story most frequently told has Fr. Mohr discovering that the organ was broken. Distraught over the possibility that the Christmas Eve service might be ruined, he sat down and quickly wrote these verses—and then took them to Franz Gruber, who composed the music.
At this point, the facts are lost in antiquity—and the variations all support a central theme of adversity and inspiration and determination to save the evening. From that point the stories merge into one.
Fr. Mohr did write the words for this carol. Franz Gruber composed the music. It was first sung on Christmas Eve, 1818, in the Church of St. Nicholas in Obendorf, and the original accompaniment was a guitar. All the stories agree on those facts.
Later, when Karl Mauracher came to repair the organ, he heard the story and obtained a copy of the song. As he went about his business, he made the story and song known to other churches in the region.
Then a family of glovemakers— the Strasser family—came into possession of a copy of the song. As they traveled through the villages in the area selling their gloves, their children would sing songs to entertain passersby and to draw attention to their merchandise—and they added this song to their repertoire. They also sang the song at the Leipzig fair, which spread its fame further.
Then, in 1838, “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” was published in a German Catholic hymnal—and in 1839 the Rainers, another musical family from Austria, traveled to New York City, where they sang “Stille Nacht!” at Trinity Church—and German immigrants brought the song with them and sang it in their churches.
By the time of the Civil War, “Silent Night” had long since been translated into English, and was a Christmas favorite in both North and South. Today it is the best known and loved Christmas carol around the world.
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan