There have been many stories of the origins of the Christmas carol “Silent Night, Holy Night.” In fact, the carol goes back further than when Christmas cards began. One of the most popularly told one is as follows:
In the winter of 1818 at St. Nicholas’ Church at Obendorf, a village near Salzburg, Austria, Joseph Mohr, the assistant to the priest, faced a dilemma. It was just days before Christmas, and the church organ which was so important to providing music for the Christmas services was broken. Since the organ repairman was not a local of the village it would actually be months before the repair could be made, and Christmas would be long past.
His solution to the problem of the broken organ resulted in one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time. In 1816 Mohr had written a simple poem that the villagers could understand expressing the wonder of the birth of Jesus. He asked his friend Franz Gruber who was the organist at St. Nicholas to write music to accompany his poem so that they could sing it together using a guitar to accompany their singing.
They first performed their newly composed Christmas carol at the Christmas Eve midnight service on December 24, 1818. It did not instantly receive the worldwide recognition it has come to know, however. It was not until years later in 1825 when Carl Mauracher was rebuilding the organ at St. Nicholas that a handwritten copy of the words and music was found in the organ loft.
Mauracher was from an area in the mountains of Tyrol which had many traveling folk choirs who performed throughout Europe. He carried the carol back home, and it became a popular song with the choirs as they traveled and spread its popularity wherever they went.
In some versions of the story it is told that mice had eaten the bellows of the organ. Others say that Gruber himself had broken the organ. It is believed that there was frequent flooding of the area that caused rust and mildew to affect the condition of the church organ often making it unplayable. It is actually not known however if the organ was truly broken at Christmastime of 1818. Some say that Mohr simply wanted a new carol for the service and was fond of the guitar as an instrument. Some stories tell that both the poem and the music were hastily written that Christmas Eve. A manuscript for “Silent Night” in Mohr’s hand was discovered in 1995 which is dated 1816. In the manuscript Mohr credits the melody used for the carol to Franz Gruber.
Whatever the details of the circumstances, Joseph Mohr’s and Franz Gruber’s contribution of Christmas music for their village’s Christmas Eve midnight mass gave us all the beautiful “Silent Night, Holy Night."