12 December 2007

Holidays & Celebrations:
"Stille Nacht" - A Christmas Carol Travels the World

By Sandra Schwab

One of the most popular and most widely known Christmas carols is "Silent Night, Holy Night", or rather "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht," for the text and the melody originated from Austria. Since its first performance in 1818 the carol has been translated into over 300 different languages and dialects.

The German version sung by the famous St. Thomas Boys' Choir (Leipzig)

The text of the song was written by Joseph Mohr in 1816 as a Christmas poem. Two years later, when he was temporary priest of St. Nicola's Church in Oberndorf near Salzburg (Salzburg--remember The Sound of Music? *g*). He asked Franz Xaver Gruber, the organist and headmaster of Oberndorf, to set his poem to music. Gruber finished the melody just in time for Christmas, and because Mohr liked the new song so much the two of them performed it during the Christmas Mass on 24 December, with Mohr accompanying them on the guitar. (According to another version of the story, the organ of St. Nicola's was broken therefore they needed a song for guitar accompaniment.)

In the following years, the carol became apparently well known throughout the Salzburg area, even though the names of the men who had written the text and music were forgotten. Gruber eventually felt compelled to write down the history of the carol in his Authentische Veranlassung zur Composition (Authentic Motive for the Composition, 1854).

But it was an organ builder who inadvertently caused the international popularity of "Stille Nacht": in the Authentische Veranlassung Gruber describes how Carl Mauracher brought the carol to Tyrol. And there it was picked up by two family choirs: by the Rainers and the Strassers. Both families toured Europe in the 1820s and 30s and "Stille Nacht" eventually became part of their repertoire: a Leipziger newspaper of 1832 reports that the Strassers performed "Stille Nacht" at their concert on 15 December. The Rainer Singers in turn brought the carol to the New World: from 1839 to 1843 they toured the USA, and on Christmas Day 1839 they gave "Stille Nacht" in New York.

English translations of the carol appeared in print as soon as the mid-19th century, and around 1900 Protestant and Catholic missionaries made "Stille Nacht" popular on all continents of the earth.

Enya sings "Silent Night" in Irish

"Stille Nacht" / "Silent Night" was one of the carols sung by German and British soldiers in the trenches of Belgium during the Christmas Truce of World War 1.


Unfortunately, the original church St. Nicola no longer exists: it was torn down about 100 ago. In its place a smaller "Stille Nacht Memorial Chapel" was erected. Each year on Christmas Eve a mass is held there in memory of Mohr and Gruber. In 2002 a webcam has been installed to allow people worldwide to catch a glimpse of the chapel and to follow the mass on 24 December.