The song “Holy Night” (German “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht”) is the world’s most famous Christmas hymn. It has been translated into more than 300 languages and dialects throughout the world and has been sung by a large number of singers, of any musical genre. Bing Crosby’s performance, however, has recorded record sales as the third best song of all time. In 2011, UNESCO declared it “intangible cultural heritage”.
This year’s celebration of two centuries of history will be celebrated with great brilliance and various events (exhibitions, concerts, theatrical performances) in his country of origin, Austria and especially in the regions of Salzburg, Upper Austria and Tyrol!
“Holy Night” was written in the early 19th century by the Austrian primary teacher Franz Xaver Gruber (1786-1863, composer) and the young Catholic priest Josephus Franciscus Mohr (1792-1848, lyricist). It was first performed on Christmas Eve in 1818, at St. Nicolas Church, in the village of Oberndorf, 17 kilometers north of Salzburg. The lyrics, however, had been written two years earlier, in 1816, by the abbot mentioned above, as we know from a manuscript discovered in 1995 bearing his signature.
On the left side there is the date of writing of the lyrics and in the upper right corner the indication “Melodie von Franz Xaver Gruber”. Today, it is kept in the Salzburg Museum (formerly the Carolino Augusteum Museum), where exhibits of the cultural history of this wider region are presented.
For years, its creators have remained unknown and many have attributed the paternity of the song to famous classical composers, such as Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, or they thought it was a traditional German lullaby.
After his first performance, the song was forgotten as the two creators parted ways, moving to different regions. In 1825, the then priest of the Oberndorf church called the craftsman Karl Mauracher to repair the ecclesiastical organ of the temple. He discovered a copy of the song at the back of the organ and he gave it to the Strasser family, which had been living in Tyrol and used to travel to various German cities singing at festivals. Thus, “Holy Night” began to spread to the German-speaking countries and soon became very popular. In 1839, the Rainer family of musicians from the same region presented the song in New York, beginning the spread of the Holy Night in the English-speaking world.
In 1863, it was translated into English by John Freeman Young (1820-1885), with a slightly different melody from the original. In 1840 it was first published under the title “unknown composer”. It was the favorite song of king Frederick William IV of Prussia, who had commissioned a search to find its creators!
“Holy Night” is considered extremely popular in both the Catholic and Protestant churches. In World War I, it was sung simultaneously in English and German by the fighting troops at the front, during the Christmas 1914 truce!
There are many verses and re-performances by various artists, while there are several film and television productions, based on its title, such as:
“The Legend of Silent Night” (1968), TV film by Daniel Mann
“Silent Night, Holy Night” (1976), Hanna-Barbera cartoon film
“Silent Mouse” (1988), television production by Robin Crichton
“Buster & Chauncey’s Silent Night” (1998), cartoon film
“Silent Night” (2012), a film by Christian Vuissa
“The First Silent Night” (2014), documentary by Simon Callow
The composition of this Christmas song has, at times, shaped the imagination of the world, creating different stories and legends. The most well-known one states that the day before Christmas Eve of 1818, in the small village of Oberndorf, during the Divine Liturgy, the old ecclesiastical organ of the church suddenly broke down. The … mice that had chipped several parts of it were considered to be the guilty ones. The young priest Joseph Mohr then called the village teacher and organist of the church Franz Gruber to think of a solution, as they could not perform the Christmas hymns without a musical accompaniment! They decided, finally, to write a guitar song. Thus, the teacher retired to his room, above the school, waiting for the verses to be written by the priest. The serene, snow-covered landscape inspired father Mohr, who imagined the Divine infant coming in the world during a peaceful and calm night. These thoughts became the first verses of the new song.
When the priest completed the writing, he ran into the teacher’s room. The beautiful words of the song moved Gruber, who made his best to compose an equally beautiful melody. By the dawn the song was ready. So, on the same night, during the Christmas Liturgy, the two creators began to chant the “Holy Night”.
Once they were finished, an immense silence prevailed in the church, bringing them into embarrassment. But a sweet female voice began to render the lyrics of the new hymn. Slowly the whole congregation began to participate, chanting this beautiful song all the time.
With the spread of the “Holy Night” throughout the world, its popular legend has been varied in many different versions, enriching the original story with elements of local traditions.
LYRICS IN ENGLISH
Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!
Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.