"Silent Night, Holy Night!" is the most famous Christmas carol in the world and is even on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. It started its journey around the world 200 years ago from a small valley in Tirol. In 2018 there will be celebrations to mark this 200th anniversary of its creation.
Translated into countless languages, "Silent Night" is a song which for centuries has given people around the world hope and comfort. It was written and set to music in 1818 by Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber in Salzburg. However, it was singers from Tirol who made the work an international sensation. Even in the early 19th century a worldwide hit needed not only the right song but also the right singers. The history of what is today the world's most famous Christmas carol is a tale of courage, talent and serendipity.
How did the song become famous?
In the 19th century it was not unusual for farmers in Tirol to leave the region in winter and work as travelling salesmen. To stand out from the crowd, glove merchant Lorenz Strasser from the Zillertal Valley took his children with him on his travels. They would give concerts and sing for his customers. For example, it is recorded that they performed at the Christmas market in Leipzig in 1831. Their repertoire included a song at that time unknown in Germany: Silent Night. The carol had been brought to the Zillertal Valley several years before by organ maker Carl Mauracher following a visit to Salzburg. The version sung by the Strasser family became a hit and took them across Europe. A few years later the 18-year-old Ludwig Rainer set sail for America together with his quartet of singers from the village of Fügen. On Christmas Eve in 1839 the Rainer singers gave a concert in New York and "Silent Night" was performed for the first time in the New World. The audience loved it, especially since at that time there were many German emigrants living in the United States. That is the story of how the world's most famous Christmas carol spread from a small valley in Austria to become an international hit.