The real story behind ‘Silent Night’: who composed the carol, and what are the lyrics?

18 December 2018, 09:55 | Updated: 18 December 2018, 10:02

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Simple but moving, ‘Silent Night’ is a perennial favourite among carollers. But who composed the carol, and what are the original lyrics?

The story goes that ‘Silent Night’ (originally ‘Stille Nacht’) was first performed on the evening of Christmas Eve in 1818.

Joseph Mohr, a young Catholic priest at St Nicholas Church, Oberndorf bei Salzburg in Austria, was in despair: the organ at his church had been incapacitated by mice, and the chances of fixing the instrument before the evening service were looking slim.

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But young Joseph had an idea. A few years before, he had written a rather beautiful poem called ‘Stille Nacht’. So, he asked Franz Xavez Gruber, a schoolmaster and organist in a nearby town, to set his six-stanza poem to music.

That night, the two men sang ‘Stille Nacht’ for the first time at the church’s Christmas Mass, while Mohr played guitar and the choir repeated the last two lines of each verse. Good thing they didn’t call an engineer…

St Nicholas Church, Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria
St Nicholas Church, Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria. Picture: Getty

What are the lyrics to ‘Silent Night’?

Some pop versions of the carol, such as Destiny’s Child’s (slightly odd) 2001 R&B rendition, use only the first verse of the original hymn.

But most hymn sheets and Carols for Choirs books use three verses, omitting Mohr’s original third, fourth and fifth stanzas.

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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 Saviour is born!
Christ the Saviour is born

Silent night, holy night!
Son of God love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth

'The Legend of Silent Night' 1968 Vienna Boys Choir
'The Legend of Silent Night' 1968 Vienna Boys Choir. Picture: Getty

What are the original German lyrics to ‘Silent Night’?

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Halleluja,
Tönt es laut von fern und nah:
Christ, der Retter ist da!
Christ, der Retter ist da!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb’ aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund’.
Christ, in deiner Geburt!
Christ, in deiner Geburt!