The Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria.

Photo: Gakuro/CC-by-SA 3.0

The most famous carol of all was dashed off in just a few hours -- out of desperation -- on Christmas Eve Day. It happened two centuries ago.

The creation of “Silent Night” is the stuff of legend. The most widely-told story about its creation goes something like this:

It was late December 1818.  The organ at the newly established St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, broke down.

The young assistant pastor at the parish, Joseph Mohr, faced a huge problem.  There wasn’t enough money to fix the organ in time for Christmas Eve midnight mass. That meant no music at the service.  

Father Mohr pondered his dilemma as he walked home after a Christmas pageant.  His route took him up a hill overlooking the village. Mohr looked down on peaceful, snow-covered Oberndorf.  He reveled in the majestic silence of the brisk, wintry night as he gazed down.

It reminded him of a glowing, Christmas-card like scene. Suddenly Joseph Mohr had an epiphany. He remembered a poem he wrote about the night angels announced the birth of the Christ child to the shepherds. It was perfect for Christmas.  

The next day, Mohr rushed to the home of church organist Franz Gruber.  He explained the problem with the broken organ and showed Gruber his poem.  

He asked Gruber to set it to music – with an instrument other than an organ, of course. The composer had just a few hours to write something.

Gruber sprang to action. He composed “Silent Night” in  a flash of inspiration -- and in time for the Christmas Eve mass.  

The composer and the pastor sang the brand new carol together at the service -- with a guitar.

The carol became a favorite of the Christmas season around the world, and became a point of pride for Oberndorf. The original chapel church where “Silent Night” had its premiere was later damaged by floods and no longer stands. The town later built a new structure, the Silent Night Chapel, which continues to draw visitors each Christmas season.

Gruber wrote “Silent Night” in a hurry, but its legacy has lasted for two centuries and counting.

Guitarist Laura Husbands and singers Jen Hitt and Matt Eschliman performed "Silent Night" at Colorado Public Radio in the original German.