Song Background: “Silent Night”

The renowned Christmas carol “Silent Night” was originally a poem written by Joseph Mohr in 1816. Two years later, Franz Xaver Gruber added the music per Mohr’s request, giving the world a beautiful melody to sing during Christmas. Here is a bit more about the background of this classic song. 

From 1799-1815 Europe was involved in the Napoleonic Wars that featured Napoleon Bonaparte striving to conquer land all over the continent. On June 18, 1815, he was defeated in the Battle of Waterloo. While the war was over, the continent was in turmoil. People were starving. The weather was colder than usual due to Mount Tambora erupting in Indonesia. It snowed in the summer, and 1816 was known as the “Year without a summer.” Also, in Salzburg, a fire destroyed ninety-three buildings, and a thousand people were without jobs. 

Josephus Franciscus Mohr was born in Austria in 1792. At a young age, he showed a lot of musical talent, both in singing and playing instruments. In 1815, he was ordained as a priest. However, his congregation in Mariapfarr, Austria, was also greatly affected by the war’s turmoil and in a state of severe poverty. To encourage his flock, Mohr penned the poem “Silent Night.” 

Something interesting about the lyrics is that some lines were changed due to translation issues. The poem was originally written in German and so titled “Stille Nacht.” When translated directly into English, the fourth verse says, 

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.

However, when it was translated to English, the words were changed to fit the melody better. It is now sung,

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.

A random fact to consider is that the music, added two years later by his friend Gruber, could have been written by Mohr himself since he played the violin and guitar and was very musically gifted. 

The song officially debuted in 1818 on Christmas Eve, when Mohr and Gruber performed “Silent Night” together for the first time. However, flooding in the Salzach River made it impossible to use the organ, so Mohr played the song on his guitar instead of the organ. Despite this difficulty, the song was a hit and became famous across cultures. 

The power of this song was never so evident as on Christmas Eve in 1914 during World War I when a German opera singer named Kirchhoff came forward on the battlefield, singing the song first in German and then again in English. One by one, soldiers on both sides joined in with the singing. The shooting had stopped, and there was a Christmas truce because of a shared culture. One soldier wrote home, “they recognized on both ends of the rifle they were the same.” 

Since it was written in 1816, the song has been translated into three hundred languages. It has been redone in every genre from heavy metal to gospel. It was labeled by UNESCO “a treasured item of Intangible Cultural Heritage.”

When you hear and sing “Silent Night” this Christmas, I urge you to think about the words. What do they mean to you? How can you share “heavenly peace” with others? No matter what is going on in the world, the truth is everything comes back to Jesus, and Mohr and Gruber reflected this in their song.