Silent Night, one of the world’s best loved Christmas carols, has a history that includes its humble beginnings in an Austrian village and its use in World War I during a cease fire on the front lines. The carol was written following the end of the Napoleonic wars which had resulted in new borders being drawn throughout Europe under the Congress of Vienna. As a result, the Principality of Salzburg lost its independence and was divided in 1816 between Bavaria, Germany, and Austria with the Salzach River serving as the natural border.
Joseph Mohr was an assistant priest in the village of Mariapfarr in the Lungau region, when Bavarian troops withdrew in 1816 and 1817. His family roots had been in the Lungau area since the 17th century. He saw how people had suffered with economic and employment losses during the wars. He wrote a poem that expressed a longing for comfort and heavenly peace, Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! (Silent Night! Holy Night!)
Mohr accepted a position as assistant priest at the newly established St. Nicholas parish in another village of Oberndorf, approximately 11 miles from the city of Salzburg. Franz Gruber was the organist at St. Nicholas and also held a position as schoolteacher in a neighboring village of Arnsdorf. On Dec. 24, 1818, Mohr handed a poem to Gruber and asked him to “write a fitting melody” for two solo voices with choir and guitar accompaniment.
Gruber returned later that same day with a completed composition. Mohr liked it and Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! was first performed at the Christmas Eve mass in Oberndorf at St. Nicholas church. Gruber sang bass; Mohr sang tenor and played the guitar. According to Gruber’s written account, those in attendance included boat builders and laborers, who earned their living with the salt shipping trade operating on the Salzach River, and their families – all of whom “approved” of the new song.
During the 1830s, the carol spread throughout Europe. In particular, the Tyrolian musical families of Rainer and Strasser made it part of their standard repertoire and performed it in Leipzig in 1832. They also introduced the song in New York in 1839. By the time nations were embroiled in World War I, Silent Night was known throughout the world.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 was not ordered by governments, countries or commanding officers. The war had been going on for five months in Europe and the Western Front was surrounded by the sounds of exploding shells and firing rifles. Soldiers on both sides were in trenches with the area known as no-man’s-land separating one side from the other. Troops took it upon themselves to create their own cease fire.
On Christmas Eve, both sides stopped shooting. One side would sing a few carols and folksongs, then the other side. German and British troops then joined in singing Silent Night at the same time, each in their own language. This truce would not happen again during the rest of the war but, for a few moments, the well-known carol had helped bring about a night of heavenly peace in the most unlikely place.
Silent Night has been translated into approximately 300 languages and dialects. St. Nicholas church was torn down at the turn of the 20th century. The Silent Night Memorial Chapel opened on that same spot in 1937. The vicarage, where Mohr lived while he was assistant priest at Oberndorf, is next door and there is a museum about the history of the carol. Every Christmas Eve, thousands of people from around the world attend a memorial service at the chapel in honor of Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber for their creation of this Austrian carol. At the conclusion of the service, visitors sing Silent Night in the language of their choice.
A popular theory is that the reason the accompaniment was written for guitar was because the organ wasn’t working. Nothing in Gruber’s written account says anything about that. He wrote other arrangements of it over the years with various instruments providing the accompaniment including organ.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared Silent Night an intangible cultural heritage in March 2011. Even though most English translations use only three out of the original six verses, this Austrian Christmas carol continues its history of simplicity and “heavenly peace.”
By Cynthia Collins
List of songs during the Christmas Truce