Skip to main content
On December 24, 1818, in Oberndorf, Austria, twenty-five-year-old priest Joseph Mohr arrived at St. Nicholas Church to get things ready for the Christmas Eve Service—the biggest, most anticipated event of the year—only to discover the organ wouldn’t work. The suddenly panicked young man raced across snow-covered streets to the home of Franz Gruber, praying the schoolteacher and accomplished organist had an idea for repairing the ancient instrument. Sadly, Gruber didn’t.

Discouraged, the novice clergyman prepared to face a disappointed community when Gruber offered to play his guitar at the service. A now-morose Mohr tossed cold water onto the suggestion by explaining the program had been built around organ music. Unwilling to throw in the towel, the teacher suggested they write a new song. And, as if struck by lightning, the priest remembered a poem he’d written two years before while on a walk through the woods. Hurrying back to his home, Mohr retrieved the composition, and after Gruber created an elementary melody, the two men taught it to the choir. It was literally the song that saved Christmas in Oberndorf!

In January, Karl Mauracher, who traveled across Europe repairing organs, arrived to fix the faulty instrument at St. Nicholas. While he worked, Mohr told the story of the song he and Gruber had composed. Mauracher was so impressed with the men’s ingenuity, he had the priest play the original number while he wrote down the words and music. Then Mauracher left to never again set foot in the tiny church.

Almost three decades later, Joseph Mohr was walking along a street in a large German city and heard his song being sung by a cathedral choir. As he had never attempted to have it published, he was naturally confused. Upon talking to the choirmaster, the small-town priest was awestruck. 

His simple little carol had somehow become the most popular Christmas song in the world. How had this happened? 

Over the next few years, Mohr and Gruber would discover that Karl Mauracher had become the Johnny Appleseed of “Silent Night” by teaching it to people everywhere he traveled.

The story of “Silent Night” reflects the very nature of Christian faith. Just as Mohr employed something he had created to put the focus on Christ at a Christmas Eve service, the first followers of Jesus lived lives that reflected the grace, compassion, and love they had seen in God’s Son. These early Christians had no idea their message would spread to places where billions across the globe would worship the Jesus many of them had met, heard, and spoken to. Yet, the seemingly little things they did became the foundation of a faith that changed everything.

Mohr’s poem, written to capture a personal moment he had experienced while walking on a snowy night, was only shared out of necessity. Yet, thanks to the inspiration behind those words, “Silent Night” has become the best known of all Christmas carols. Perhaps more importantly, the carol is an example of why we must never underestimate the potential of sharing our faith in our own words with others. Two centuries ago a young man did just that, and hundreds of millions are still singing his song of love and grace.

Ace Collins

Speaker, storyteller, authored 96 books: novels, biographies, children’s, history, culture, and faith.