Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: “Silent Night, Holy Night”

History of Hymns: “Silent Night, Holy Night”

By C. Michael Hawn

"Silent Night, Holy Night"
by Joseph Mohr, trans. John F. Young.
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 239

Joseph Mohr

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht!
Alles schläft, einsam wacht
nur das traute hochheilige Paar,
Holder Knabe mit lockigem Haar,
schlaf im himmlischer Ruh.

The story of “Stille Nacht” is one of the most endearing and enduring in Christian hymnody, though highly romanticized. Joseph Mohr (1792-1848) was an Austrian cathedral chorister in Salzburg as a boy. He was ordained into the Catholic priesthood in 1815. He spent most of his life ministering in parishes near Salzburg. Living a simple life, he died in poverty after giving away what little he had to the poor.

In 1816, Mohr penned the original six stanzas of the poem that would make him famous around the world. He was serving as an assistant priest in Oberndorf, now a skiing area in the Austrian Alps. Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863) was an Austrian cantor and school teacher, holding church positions near Salzburg including Oberndorf. While a prolific composer, little was published and none known now save this Weihnachtslied (Christmas carol). Tradition has it that the carol was composed for a text by his assistant priest Joseph Mohr on short notice for the Christmas Eve Mass in Oberndorf in 1818. While it was first accompanied on guitar, it may not have been because the organ didn't work. As Carl Daw Jr. notes, "the organ at St. Nicholas Church was in chronic need of attention." (Daw, 126) That this was due to mice eating the bellows cannot be verified and probably is closer to apocryphal romanticism than fact. We do know, however, that Joseph Mohr had a guitar it use seems to have been for aesthetic reasons rather than an organ emergency: the guitar was more appropriate for accompanying this folk-like melody than an organ. Though this was not the normal instrument for the Mass, it was used in this case to great effect. Joseph Mohr’s guitar is housed at the Hallein’s Franz Gruber Museum.

Carl Daw notes that the first performance on Christmas Eve, 1818, was at Mohr’s request to compose a setting for “two solo singers and choir, with guitar accompaniment. . . . Gruber took his composition to Mohr who happily approved it. At the Christmas Eve Mass, Mohr sang the tenor part and played the guitar, Gruber sang the bass part, and the local choir sang a refrain consisting of a repeat of the last four measures.” (Daw. 126).

Franz Xaver Gruber

Karl Mauracher, an organ builder, traveled to Arnsdorf in 1821, during which time he obtained a copy of the manuscript. The carol was taken to the Leipzig trade fair in 1831 and first published in 1838 in an adapted version where its popularity spread as a “Tyrolean Folk Song.” The melodic version that we now sing is somewhat different from Gruber’s original, having taken on more of the characteristics of an idyllic folk song of this region. This adaptation has contributed to its reception and continued popularity.

In the only surviving autograph of the Mohr-Gruber collaboration at the Carolino Augusteum in Salzburg, one can see the difference between Gruber’s original melody and the popular adaptation in use today. The manuscript here, discovered in 1995, dates from 1821. It contains six stanzas from which we sing stanzas 1, 6, and 2, in that order. The accompaniment is in the facsimile of the musical score, is idiomatic of the guitar, and would not work on the organ. The inscription in the upper right reads, “Melodie von Fr Xav Gruber.”

Musical arrangements and English translations of the song have a life of their own. The literal translation may surprise some singers:

Silent night, holy night!
All are asleep; alone awake
only the faithful and most holy pair,
Gentle boy with curly hair,
sleep in heavenly peace.

Most hymnals contain versions primarily derived from a translation by Episcopal minister John Freeman Young (1820-1885) around 1859. Often translations by several authors are included in a single version of this carol. The United Methodist Hymnal uses Young’s translation for the first three stanzas and ascribes the fourth stanza to an anonymous translator, though it now appears that it was written by the English woman Jane Montgomery Campbell (1817-1878). The fourth stanza, whith no reference to the original German, completes the scene painted in the first three by inviting us to form a circle around the Holy Family and sing "Christ the Savior is born." For numerous English translations of “Stille Nacht,” see silentnight.web.za/translate/eng.htm.

The original Austrian carol has not only inspired many musical arrangements and translations, but also completely new carols based on the ideas of the original German poem. Of special note is a Chinese hymn written to a pentatonic (five-note) melody. “Holy Night, Blessed Night” (“Sheng ye jing”) is so similar in spirit to the Austrian version, that it has been nicknamed the “Chinese Silent Night,” written by the Rev. Wei-yu Zhu and Jing-ren Wu (1921). Mohr’s text seems to have inspired the Chinese poets. Indeed, several themes and images are common to both hymns. Pastor Qu-gui Shi, now living in Shanghai, was mentored by the Rev. Zhu, and added the melody in 1982 partly as a way to honor his teacher. In a conversation with Pastor Shi, he said that his intent was to compose a melody that reflected the spirit of the text and that would be in a musical idiom that Chinese Christians would understand and feel. The first stanza, in a paraphrase by Taiwanese missionary Kathleen Moody, follows:

Holy night, Blessed night,
Stars shine brightly, earth is still:
Hills and valleys, field and woodlands,
All surround the small town of Bethlehem.
In a manger Christ the Lord sleeps.

See the following link to hear Pastor Shi’s melody: youtube.com/watch?v=LvkT9MnyiZc.

Welsh hymnologist Alan Luff discusses the influence and performance of this carol: “‘Stille nacht’ now appears in many languages, and has passed readily from culture to culture. Although to some it may appear sentimental, in the original and in good translations there is an emphasis on the awe and wonder, and on the cosmic quality of the Incarnation. The musical arrangement and performance can thus make or break it as a legitimate piece of worship. Cloying harmonies and sentimentalized performance are contrary to the original conception of an innocent song with a light accompaniment.”

Finally, while the origins of any hymn are of interest, like Scripture, we find meaning not only in its origins, but also in its meaning today. We must not forget that the original context was that of Palestine, a country occupied by Roman forces. Mary and Joseph’s journey to an insignificant village outside of Jerusalem was forced by the census required by Roman authorities. It made no difference that she was pregnant. Lodging was denied them several times until they were given shelter in a dank, smelly, dirty stable, hardly the place to give birth to a child. Yet, at that moment the Divine intervened in the presence of God in human form. The original literal translation from the German of stanza three has the child uttering a laugh (lacht) from his Divine mouth (göttlichen Mund), a laugh of love (Lieb’). The infant with “curly hair” in stanza one, a very human description of the child, is combined with a child laughing in love in stanza three. Human infants cry at birth; only a Divine Infant would laugh in love!

As we sing this carol on the 200th anniversary of its first performance, we must not forget that the Holy Family sought refuge in a foreign country within a few years of Christ’s birth because their lives were in danger. We sing “Silent Night” today not as an escape, but in hope and solidarity with the millions who live in poverty, political oppression, and who must forcibly migrate in order to survive.

Further Reading:

Carl P. Daw, Jr. Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).

C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

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