There are numerous stories detailing the origin of "Silent Night, Holy Night," which is quite possibly the favorite among all Christmas carols. The most popularly-told tale is one whose roots are to be found to Austria.
In the winter of 1818 at St. Nicholas' Church in Obendorf, a village not far from Salzburg, Joseph Mohr, assistant to the priest, was faced with something of a dilemma. It was only days before Christmas, and the church organ, so vital in providing music for the services, was broken. Since the repairman was not a village local, it would be months before the organ could be put back into working condition...by which time, Christmas would be long past. Mohr's solution to this problem resulted in one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time.
Two years previous, Mohr had written a simple poem, easily understood by the people of the village, which expressed the wonder of the birth of the Christ Child. Mohr had asked his friend, Franz Gruber, the organist at St. Nicholas' Church, to compose music for his poem, so that they might sing it together using the accompaniment of a guitar.
Thus, the newly-composed carol was first performed during the Christmas Eve midnight service held at St. Nicholas' Church on December 24, 1818. It did not, however, instantly receive the worldwide recognition that it has since garnered. It was not until some years later, in 1825 when Carl Mauracher was rebuilding the broken organ, that a handwritten copy of the words and accompanying sheet music was discovered in the organ loft.
Mauracher was from an area in the Tyrol Mountains where there were many traveling folk choirs who performed throughout Europe. He returned with the carol to his home and it soon became a favored song with the traveling singers. Thus, did the popularity of "Silent Night, Holy Night" spread as these choirs journeyed the countryside, singing their songs.
In some versions of this story, it is said that mice had eaten the bellows of the organ. Still others maintain that Gruber himself had broken the organ, or that frequent flooding of the area often caused rust and mildew to affect the condition of the church organ, such that it became unplayable.
In all truth, it is unknown whether the organ was truly broken during the Christmastime of 1818. It is rumored that perhaps Mohr simply wanted a new carol for the service and was fond of the guitar as an accompanying instrument. Other tales suggest that both the poem and the music were hastily written on that Christmas Eve.
In 1995, a manuscript entitled "Silent Night" was unearthed, written in Mohr's hand. It is dated 1816 and credits the melody to Franz Gruber. Nevertheless, no matter what the details of the circumstances regarding the contribution of this carol by Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber, they gave the world what is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful of all Christmas songs.
On September 25, 2001, the following message was received from Bill Egan,
a Christmas Historian and very kind gentleman:
"I was enthralled with your Christmas website until I came upon the story of "Silent
Night." It's so disappointing to see the 1990s fairy-tale about Franz Gruber
deliberately breaking the organ in Oberndorf. One could call it
'a tale told by an idiot' - in this case, a man who has been trying for ten years
to sell a film-script based on his bogus version of the history of 'Silent Night.'
He even has a bogus museum that he claims is the birthplace of Joseph Mohr, when church
records show that Mohr was not born there and never lived at that location
(31 Steingasse in Salzburg).
The parish and diocesan records in Salzburg and Oberndorf show nothing to indicate that
the organ was broken in December 1818 or that it was repaired at that time.
In addition, Carl Mauracher's records in the Ziller Valley do not indicate that he
repaired the St. Nicholas organ at that time. He may have simply stopped in his travels
to check it and/or make an adjustment. We do know that it was prior to 1825 (date in
your story) that it was being sung in the Ziller Valley.
The filmscript writer is trying to create a conflict between Joseph Mohr and
Franz Gruber - thus the tale of the organ broken by Gruber. It would make an
interesting scene in a movie. (He also blames the Salzburg Fire on Mohr and his
step-father.) The two men remained lifelong friends and when Franz Mohr died he had his
his guitar given to Franz Gruber. It can be seen today in the Gruber Museum in Hallein.
If you wish, I can provide you with an accurate history of "Stille Nacht" and if
need be, can have it authenticated by the state cultural office in Salzburg.
Your site is so beautiful, it should have correct information for the visitors."
Bill Egan, Christmas Historian
Who could refuse such a generous offer? It was seized upon with much delight...
and thus, in response to my request for the true story, Bill sent the following on
November 6, 2001:
The Story of "Silent Night"
In 1816, a young curate, Joseph Mohr, was assigned to a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr,
Austria. During his time there, this poet-musician wrote a six-stanza poem that is now
known as "Stille Nacht" or "Silent Night."
According to modern historians, Joseph Mohr decided he wanted a new carol for the 1818
Christmas service at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf where he was assigned at the time;
a carol that he could play on his guitar. He would use the poem he wrote two years
earlier as the basis for the carol.
On December 24, 1818, Father Mohr walked to nearby Arnsdorf where his good friend
Franz Gruber was the schoolmaster and church organist. He asked Gruber, who also
played the organ for services at St. Nicholas, to create a melody and a guitar
accompaniment for his poem.
A few hours later, a song was born that would reach around the globe and be translated
into the languages of many nations. During his lifetime, Franz Gruber wrote several
arrangements of his carol and Joseph Mohr also penned a copy of Gruber's melody
Throughout the world, "Silent Night" is an anchor for Christmas celebrations. Its
lullaby-like melody and simple message of heavenly peace can be heard from small town
street corners in mid-America to magnificent cathedrals in Europe and from outdoor
candlelight concerts in Australia to palm thatched huts in northern Peru.
The popularity of Silent Night can almost be termed "miraculous." After all, the words
were written by a modest curate and the music composed by a musician hardly known
outside the province where he resided. There was no celebrity to sing at the world
premiere and no mass-communication systems existed to spread the fame of "Silent Night,"
however, its powerful message of heavenly peace has crossed all borders and language
barriers, conquering the hearts of Christmas-celebrating people everywhere.