As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Our Savior, this Christmas Eve marks the 200th anniversary of the first time a simple poem set to guitar was played in what would eventually be hailed as most beloved carol of all time.
In 1816, a young priest by the name of Joseph Mohr first wrote the lyrics to the song Stille Nachte in Mariapfarr, the hometown of his father in Salzburg, Austria. He wrote the song to celebrate the coming of peace, a year following the end of the Napoleonic Wars that brought fires, floods, and famine. For two years, he sat on his work, until the morning of Christmas Eve, 1818.
Father Mohr had traveled to the city of Obendorf near the Salzbach river a year prior. After flooding from the river damaged the organ in Mohr’s parish Church of Saint Nicholas, he approached nearby school teacher and organist Franz Xaver Gruber the morning of December 24th, 1818 and asked him to compose a melody for the song set to guitar.
Franz Gruber finished the melody just in time for Christmas Eve Mass that night. As guitar was not an approved instrument by the Church, they waited until the conclusion of Mass before debuting the new carol. A modest man, Mohr said it had been met with “general approval by all.” It would soon become famous world wide when it was incorporated into the repertoire of two travelling singing groups, and the rest is history.
While the Church of Saint Nicholas was destroyed by repeated flooding, the Silent Night Chapel stands where it once did as a monument to the carol, Father Mohr, and Franz Gruber.
Today, Silent Night is the most widely recorded Christmas carol of all time. In 2011, UNESCO declared the carol an honored part of “our intangible cultural heritage.”