"Silent Night" was written in 1816 by a young priest in Austria named Joseph Mohr. Mohr wrote the song's lyrics when he took a walk and he was impressed of how quiet and tranquil the winter-laden town looked.
It was Christmas Eve, 1818, when the now-famous carol was first performed as Stille Nacht Heilige Nacht. Mohr played the guitar and sang along with Franz Xaver Gruber, the choir director who had written the melody.
An organ builder and repair man working at the church took a copy of the six-verse song to his home village. There, it was picked up and spread by two families of traveling folk singers, who performed around northern Europe. In 1834, the Strasser family performed it for the King of Prussia. In 1839, the Rainer family of singers debuted the carol outside Trinity Church in New York City.
The composition evolved, and was translated into over 300 languages with many different arrangements for various voices and ensembles. It was sung in churches, in town squares, even on the battlefield during World War I, when, during a temporary truce on Christmas Eve, soldiers sang carols from home. "Silent Night," by 1914, known around the world, was sung simultaneously in French, German and English.
Over the years, the carol's mystique grew with its popularity. After the original manuscript was lost, for decades, some speculated that the music had been written by Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven. In 1994, an original manuscript was found in Mohr's handwriting, with Gruber named as composer.
Today, the Franz Xaver Gruber Museum in Hallein and the Joseph Mohr School in Wagrain, Austria honor the creators of this classic carol. The Stille Nacht Gesellschaft-or Silent Night Society-hosts a virtual Silent Night museum, tracks events, and promotes the use of all six verses, which in the words of Silent Night Society president "[encourage] peace and [demand] responsibility for the globe."
1. Matthew West featuring Leanna Crawford
2. Michael W. Smith featuring Little Big Town
3. Darlene Zschech and HopeUC
4. Kim Walker-Smith
5. Chris Tomlin featuring Kristyn Getty