In 1818, a roving band of actors was performing in towns throughout the Austrian Alps. On December 23, they arrived at Oberndorf, a village near Salzburg. There they were scheduled to perform the story of Christ’s birth in the Church of St. Nicholas.
Unfortunately, the St. Nicholas church organ wasn’t working and would not be repaired before Christmas. Because the church organ was out of commission, the actors presented their Christmas drama in a private home. That Christmas presentation put assistant pastor Josef Mohr in a meditative mood. So, instead of walking straight to his house, Mohr took a longer way home. The longer path took him up over a hill overlooking the village.
From that hilltop, Mohr looked down on the peaceful snow-covered village. Reveling in the wintry night’s majestic silence, he gazed down at the glowing scene. His thoughts about the Christmas play caused him to remember a poem he had written a couple of years earlier. That poem was about the night when angels announced the birth of the long-awaited Messiah to shepherds on a hillside.
Mohr decided those words would make a good carol for his congregation at their Christmas eve service. However, he didn’t have any music to which that poem could be sung. So, the next day Mohr went to see the church organist, Franz Xaver Gruber. Gruber only had a few hours to come up with a melody which could be sung with a guitar. By that evening, Gruber had managed to compose a simple musical setting for Mohr’s poem. It didn’t matter that the organ was broken. They now had a Christmas carol they could sing without it.
On Christmas Eve, the little Oberndorf congregation heard Gruber and Mohr sing their new composition to the accompaniment of Gruber’s guitar.
Weeks later, well-known organ builder Karl Mauracher arrived to fix the St. Nicholas church organ. When he finished, Mauracher stepped back to let Gruber test the instrument. When Gruber sat down, his fingers began playing the simple melody he had written for Mohr’s Christmas poem. Deeply impressed, Mauracher took the music and words of “Silent Night” back to his own Alpine village, Kapfing. There, two well-known families of singers— the Rainers and the Strassers—heard it. Captivated by “Silent Night,” both groups put the new song into their Christmas season repertoire.
The Strasser sisters spread the carol throughout northern Europe. In 1834, after they had performed “Silent Night” for King Frederick William IV of Prussia, the king ordered his cathedral choir to sing it every Christmas eve. The Rainers brought the song to the United States in 1839.