Of all the classic songs we hear around Christmas time Silent Night is some of the most peaceful and focused tunes. The story of how it emerged is humble and beautiful, just like its words. If we take a minute to truly listen, its meaning will rise and well up in our hearts.

It is without a doubt the most popular Christmas song ever written; and it has been translated into hundreds of languages. There is far more to that carol than the different renditions we hear year after year. Let’s look at this song written by a young man who loved God and loved people.

Song Data

Where

  • Text: Mariapfarr, Austria
  • Music: Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria
  • Performed for the first time: St Nicholas Parish, Oberndorf

When

  • 1816: the lyrics to the song are written in the form of a poem
  • 1818: the music is composed for the song and it is performed on the same night

Who

  • Words: Joseph Mohr
  • Melody: Franz Xaver Gruber

A Lowly Outcast

Joseph Mohr was born out of wedlock, on December 11, 1792. He was a social outlaw (since born to unmarried parents) and lived with his mother. Making his condition even more miserable, Joseph was born during seriously challenging times, in Salzburg, Austria. It was some time after Napoleon’s campaigns when the oppressive religious rulers and the rich had left the city. Their departure signified the end of their abuse on their people, but also the beginning of new levels of poverty.

Clergy of Salzburg’s Cathedral took poor young Joseph under their wings and noticed his musical talent. They sent him to school and along with many skills, he learned several musical instruments. He received an excellent education, attended seminary and became a priest.

Priesthood & Faith

Father Joseph Mohr’s first assignment was to Mariapfarr, where he worked from 1815 to 1817. The year in between that, 1816, was dubbed the dark year because a natural catastrophe led to less sun and colder temperatures globally. This affected people in many ways, including disrupting crops, causing widespread hunger. During that very year, Father Mohr walked kilometer upon kilometer in harsh weather to go and care for his people. He then contracted tuberculosis.

His health was failing him, and the outlooks of life were quite grim. It was amongst this hardship that Joseph wrote a poem of faith in 1816: Silent Night, Holy Night, celebrating the birth of his Savior, the hope of the world. Mohr looked to Jesus rather than to his circumstances and he found comfort in His Savior.

Oberndorf

Due to his poor health, he returned to Salzburg in the summer of 1817, to recuperate. Later that year, he traveled to Oberndorf, a community in the middle of an economic crisis, to serve as an assistant priest at St-Nicholas church.

The people of Oberndorf lived in hunger and financial struggles, on the edge of a river that frequently flooded the area. War, famine, and bad harvests burdened those people. They were dispirited, without hope, and without peace.

Joseph Mohr became a man of the people. He would hang out with them and be so near that his superiors criticized his behavior as not “spiritual” enough. Father Mohr did not care so much about his reputation that it prevented him from relating to the people he served.

Meeting Franz Xaver Gruber

Not too far from Oberndorf, another man with a background as poor as Mohr’s was doing his best to serve the community of Arnsdorf. Franz Xaver Gruber was a school teacher and an organist. He played the organ at St-Nicholas’s and his love for God and music in common with that of Mohr’s may very well have been at the heart of their friendship. “When they finally met, they would change the sound of Christmas forever.”[1]

Together, they wanted to create something unique for their congregation to help them regain faith in God during such troubled times. It was on December 24, 1818, that they decided to put the words written by Mohr together to music composed by Gruber. The song took about half a day to be ready for mass that very night.

It was composed and played on a guitar, something unusual in those days. They had no choice since the church organ was broken. The two performed their new song of faith, hope and peace right after mass. Mohr played the guitar and both men sang together.

Popularity of Silent Night

The extent to which it touched people’s lives is not possibly quantifiable. Those who first heard it must were deeply moved and shared the song. Indeed, the carol traveled all across Europe, and all the way to America within 20 years of it being first sung. Remember, in those days, there was no internet and no telephone. Technology was not there to help, it had to be something else.

It wasn’t long before it grew in popularity, but the writers were quickly forgotten. People simply didn’t know who the authors were. The men died unknown to the world until eventually history caught up and revealed who they were. It was only in 1995 that a written copy of the song was discovered, one written by the hand of Joseph Mohr himself that testified to the authenticity and integrity of this men’s work.

After his service in to the small community of Oberndorf, Joseph Mohr relocated several times. He ended up in Wagrain where he built a school. He died in 1948, so poor, that not even his funeral could be paid for. No one knew then that he was the penmanship behind Silent Night.

I am sure that if we could ask him, he would say that he got his reward. He got to comfort his people and praise his God. And at the end of his life, he got to be with the One he loved, Jesus.

English Version

The song was officially translated from German into English and published in 1859 by Episcopal priest John Freeman Young, keeping three of its six original verses.

Here are the lyrics to the song that we know today:

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 Savior is born,
Christ the Savior 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.

Verse 1 depicts what one might have seen if they could have peaked in the stable on Christmas Night. The second verse is a poetic rendition of the Biblical account of angels visiting the shepherds to announce the good news, Christ the Savior is born! Verse 3 speaks of Jesus being Lord and Savior, a great hope for all who place their faith in Him.

Lost in Translation

The English version is an adaptation of verses 1, 6 and 2. The words lost in translation include three more verses, verses 3 to 5. They could be translated as such:

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.

We read of grace in verse 3, equality and justice in verse 4, and prophecies fulfilled in verse 5. I wonder what could have been the impact of having all six verses in English. Would it have left its imprint on the general theology of the English-speaking world?

Translation for those verses was provided by the Silent Night Association on their website.

Peace on Christmas day for Generations

When Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber sang Silent Night, Holy Night for the first time to their suffering congregation, it brought them comfort and peace. Indeed, what we celebrate on Christmas Day is that God Himself came to us, forever offering reconciliation with the Most High God. Our sufferings are but for a moment. Our eternities with God will be glorious.

Next year will mark 200 years that this carol of hope has been warming the hearts of people all over the world. There are so many accounts that we will never know about, and some that have left an indelible mark on history. I am thinking of Christmas 1914, when an unofficial ceasefire took place during World War I.

On Christmas Day 1914, the truce began with soldiers singing Christmas carols in the trenches. What followed was nothing short of a miracle, enemy soldiers came out of the trenches and celebrated Christmas together. They exchanged food, gifts, and according to history.com, “There was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer.” The truce lasted for days in certain places.

Sainsbury, a British supermarket chain, made this video in 2014, to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the truce. Click here to view.

Today

The song now exists in hundreds of languages, and recorded in hundreds of renditions over the years. It is part of our Christmas classic repertoire and most people don’t know how it came to be, nor who wrote it.

Joseph Mohr’s story is yet another testimony of how God can use even those of us with the humblest of lives. We bring to God our best as an act of worship, and He does the hard, and often impossible work.

Now it’s your turn. Tell us in the comments below what this song means to you. What memories do you have tied to it? What’s your favorite Christmas song?


[1] The First Silent Night. Directed by Peter Beveridge. Performed by Simon Callow. PBS, 2014. Amazon Video. Accessed November 30, 2017.

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