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"And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch 

over their flocks at night" -- Luke 2:8

While we were serving as missionaries in Europe we visited a small little 

church in Austria. That church was the birthplace of "Silent Night." Here's 

the story how this most famous of Christmas carols came to be written:

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 where 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. His 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 he had just seen 

reminded him of a poem he had written a couple of years earlier. The poem 

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 church to sing the 

following evening 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. Although he only had a few 

hours to come up with something, by that evening, Gruber had composed a 

musical setting for Mohr's poem which could be sung with a guitar (since the 

organ was broken).

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, he began playing the 

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, that king ordered his cathedral choir to sing it every Christmas 


The Rainers brought the song to the United States in 1839, singing it (in 

German) at the Alexander Hamilton Monument located outside New York City's 

Trinity Church.

In 1863, nearly fifty years after being written in German, "Silent Night" 

was translated into English (by either Jane Campbell or John Young). In 1871 

the English version was published in an American hymnal: Charles Hutchins' 

Sunday School Hymnal.