“Silent Night” is such an iconic Christmas song that it’s hard to imagine it’s not some ancient folk tune that wafted out of the mist one wintery night. But the song did not spring from some holly- and ivy-lined fairy glade, instead the origin of the peaceful song comes 200 years ago during a turbulent time in Europe.
The continent was reeling in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Financial scarcity and insecurity abounded, further stoked by fires, floods and famine. But the conflict was, at least, finally over. In 1816, Josef Mohr, a Catholic priest from Oberndorf bei Salzburg, which had just come under Austrian rule, wrote a poem called “Stille Nacht" to commemorate the coming of peace. Then, he put the poem aside for two years.
He returned to the poem in the winter of 1818, according to CNN's John Malathronas, when the river Salzbach flooded into Mohr's parish church of Saint Nicholas. So the congregation could have music on Christmas Eve, Mohr asked school teacher and church organist Franz Xaver Gruber from the neighboring village of Arndorf to set his poem to music to be sung by two voices and a guitar. Gruber wrote the arrangement in an afternoon.
Because guitar was not an instrument approved by the Church, the duo waited until the conclusion of Christmas Eve mass before debuting the song. Mohr sang tenor and strummed the guitar while Gruber sang bass, with the congregation coming in on the chorus.
The song might have remained a one-night wonder, but when the organ repairman Karl Mauracher arrived, he heard the song and took the sheet music home with him to Tyrol, an area known for its choirs. The choirs began singing the tune, and eventually it was translated and spread around Europe. In 1839, it came to the United States when the Rainer Family Singers—think of The Sound of Music but more Dickensian—toured the New World.
According to Edward W. Schmidt at America magazine, by the 1850s, the carol was so popular and important that the Royal Hofkapelle (court orchestra) in Berlin wanted to trace its origins. The theory was that it may have been composed by Johann Haydn, the brother of well-known composer Joseph Haydn. Eventually, the inquiry made it back to Gruber, who wrote a brief history of the tune called “Authentic Origination of the Composition of the Christmas Carol ‘Silent Night.’”
The story doesn't end there. In 1912, according to the Austrian National Tourism Office, sculptor Joseph Mühlbacher wanted to create a memorial to the song’s originators. Though paintings of Gruber were made during his lifetime, Mohr always resisted having an image made. So Mühlbacher set about locating Mohr’s grave—yes, his grave—in the town of Wagrain, which was his last posting as a priest. He proceeded to dig up Mohr’s skull, using his remains to inform his sculpture of the two men. For several years, the skull remained in storage. When a chapel named after the song was constructed on the site of St. Nicholas church in the 1920s, Mohr's skull was embedded in the wall, where it remains today. Mühlbacher's sculpture of the two men, meanwhile, stands outside the Silent Night Chapel.
To celebrate the song's bicentennial, the Salzburg Museum is currently presenting an exhibit on its 200 year legacy, which will also be officially marked at 13 Silent Night locations around Salzburg, Upper Austria and Tirol.