In 2011, the carol was granted “intangible cultural heritage” status by UNESCO because of its prominence in world culture.
Known in German as “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”), the lyrics were composed by the Austrian priest Joseph Mohr and set to music by the church organist, Franz Xaver Gruber, for the Christmas Eve service in Arnsdorf in December 1818. Mohr and Gruber performed the carol themselves with only a guitar as accompaniment. The hymn was an instant success with the congregation and soon spread to other towns and countries.
One of the most moving examples of the carol’s place in our shared culture comes from an extraordinary event that occurred during World War I. In December 1914, Germany and the Allied forces declared a Christmas truce and ordered troops to cease all hostilities. According to contemporary accounts, on Christmas Eve one German soldier — Walter Kirchoff, once a tenor in the Berlin opera — stepped forward and began to sing “Silent Night,” first in German and then in English.
Recognizing the hymn, British soldiers joined in, and both sides began singing Christmas carols in their own languages. On Christmas Day, soldiers climbed out of the trenches to wish their enemies a merry Christmas and played games and exchanged gifts until the truce ended. For a brief time after the singing of “Silent Night” that Christmas, “heavenly peace” reigned over the battlefield.