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Silent Night: A Brief History of the Christmas Hymn

Every year, Silent Night can be heard not only during the Christmas season, but often throughout the winter and sometimes even in the spring, as well. But what’s the history behind this popular Christmas hymn? Who wrote it? And how did it become so iconic in Western culture? Here’s a brief history of Silent Night.

Who Wrote Silent Night?

What’s surprising about Silent Night is that the music for the song was written by a priest, not a musician. Franz Gruber (1787-1863) was born in Austria and joined the church in 1809. As part of his training, he became quite proficient on guitar, lute, organ and violins. He spent much of his life working at parishes throughout Upper Austria until taking an administrative position with a monastery in 1847. He stayed with them for two years before becoming parish priest at Oberndorf am Berg—the same town where he would write Silent Night.

Despite his accomplishments as a priest, Gruber didn’t do much composing; other than hymns like What Child Is This? and Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus, his only other work is believed to be Jingle Bells.

It’s probably not a surprise that most people think Silent Night was written by Gruber, who is often credited as the author. In reality, he composed a melody for a poem that was originally written by Joseph Mohr in 1816. It has been suggested that Gruber may have also helped with lyric editing—in particular, his name is connected to an 1827 version of Stille Nacht—but even if he did help with edits, it doesn’t make him a co-author. Rather, it simply means he created a version with modified lyrics. Silent Night wasn't even originally intended to be sung; instead, it's believed Gruber wrote it as part of an Austrian Advent hymn. Mohr’s text can be found in An die Gottesliebe: Ein Weihnachtslied (To God's Love: A Christmas Hymn), which also included Jesus Christ Our Savior and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. All three were eventually combined into one song under what we now know as Silent Night.

That said, what Gruber did do is create one of history’s most famous Christmas songs.

How Silent Night Became One of the Most Famous Christmas Carols

While it’s not entirely clear who first sang Silent Night, what is known is that by 1859, copies of Gruber's song were being sold in areas as far-flung as New York City and San Francisco. Two years later it had been translated into English. Then sometime before 1901, an Australian bishop named John Freeman Young added another verse to accommodate English-speaking choirs who didn't know how to pronounce certain German words. It was around that time that Pope Pius X officially declared Stille Nacht to be a holy song for all Roman Catholics to sing during Advent. By 1908 Stille Nacht! was being performed in Los Angeles by a children's choir under conductor George Whitefield Chadwick.

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And so Silent Night has become one of the most popular Christmas carols in history. But even now, about 200 years later, it's still not entirely clear why. Some folks say that Silent Night was written as a protest against mass warfare or as part of an effort to heal political rifts during times of war. Others maintain that it was intended to comfort those who had lost loved ones in battle. And many believe that composing and singing Silent Night were purely religious acts, designed to honor Christ and His birth. Today, many people associate the Christmas hymn with celebrating peace on Earth and goodwill toward men. Still, ever since 1818, variations of Silent Night have been performed around Christmas time across multiple countries and cultures.