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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn E. Cook

The Unassuming History of a Christmas Carol

And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. . .” King James Version, Luke 2:10-11

The next celebration of Jesus’s birth will soon be upon us and our thoughts turn to the traditional things — decorating, gift-giving, cookie-baking — and Christmas music, especially the old carols, many from so far into the past, we don’t have a clue about their beginnings.

Some years ago, I read of the progression of Silent Night, told in the manner of an intriguing story. I believed every bit of it. But in the intervening years, I learned that the tale is more nuanced than that simple account. The following is a mash-up of multiple sources, each presenting a somewhat different report. Which one tells the factual truth? Who knows? Maybe the decision amounts to choosing the version you like best.

We start in the small village of Oberndorf, Austria. Or perhaps it was in the town of Salzburg. The month was possibly December. Despite those conflicting details, there is agreement on the date of 1816, which makes the math, 217 years ago. The long war against Napoleon’s armies was finally over. Still, it had taken its toll on Europe. The average folks had suffered through destruction of homes and towns, famine, disease, and too much death.

On a moonlit evening, a young priest named Joseph Mohr went out for a walk in the cold. When he reached the top of a hill, he looked over the quiet, snow-covered village below and he felt gratitude that the people could now live in peace. He was inspired. When he returned to his home, he sat down and penned a short poem that he titled, Stille Nacht. His words spoke of God and his care for the people, his sheep. One line said, “. . . fatherly love is poured out, and Jesus as brother embraces the world.”

Overall, no one knows for certain what Father Mohr’s inspiration actually was. However, this is as good as any. Perhaps Mohr showed it to a few friends or perhaps he shared it with no one. Nevertheless, he put it away and forgot about it.

Two years later, we pick up the story again. At St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, the flooding of a nearby river had caused serious damage to the organ. — Or, the damage could have been done by mice chewing on the organ’s innards. — Or, it could have been simply rust in the pipes. This is another example of conflicting facts or perhaps legends, depending on the source. I rather like the one about the mice.

On December 23rd, someone at the church contacted an organ builder to diagnose the problem and repair it pronto. He explained that the organ could be fixed, but the job would require several days of work. Thus, it wouldn't be playable for the mass on Christmas Eve.

What might be done to salvage the service?

Father Mohr remembered that little poem he’d written two winters before and the following morning, Christmas Eve, he rushed to visit Franz Gruber, schoolmaster and church organist, in the nearby town of Arnsdorf. Could Gruber compose a melody and guitar accompaniment for Mohr’s poem in a few, short hours, to be ready for the evening’s Christmas mass?

Apparently, Gruber was up for the challenge and he wrote a sweet, lullaby melody in quick order. The men practiced the piece together, then returned to St. Nicholas church and debuted the new Christmas carol that evening. Father Mohr played his guitar and sang the melody line, while Gruber added a harmony. Parishioners loved it and the organ builder was so taken with the song that he wrangled a copy of the lyrics and score for his own village.

From there, various traveling folk singers made copies and, by the next Christmas, Stille Nacht was performed all around northern Europe, including for a number of kings and queens. In 1839, another family of traveling singers brought the song to Trinity Church in New York City. Then it was Americans who loved it, except that the words were in German. Twenty years later, an Episcopal priest named John Young, serving at the same Trinity Church, wrote and published an English translation, loosely based on three of Mohr’s original six verses. This is the version we know today.

Long after both Mohr and Gruber had passed on, the first recording of Stille Nacht was made in 1905, likely on a wax cylinder to be played on a wind-up phonograph. And in 1914, as part of the famous Christmas Truce of World War I, the British and German soldiers, enemies on every other day, stood together and sang of the babe sleeping in heavenly peace.

Somewhere along the way, the initial, song score was lost and speculation abounded that Stille Nacht might have been written by Haydn, Mozart, or even Beethoven. No one had evidence one way or the other. Many years onward, in 1994, a frail and yellowed score was amazingly found in Father Mohr’s belongings, written in what was determined by experts to be his handwriting. It was dated 1820, with Joseph Mohr as lyricist and Franz Gruber as composer. At least, that question was finally solved.

Over the decades, Stille Nacht has been translated into anywhere from 140 to 300 languages, again depending on the source. One thing is definite. When asked their favorite Christmas carol, most people will respond, “Silent Night.”

Father Joseph Mohr 1792-1848

Franz Gruber 1787-1863>arts-desk>the-story-behind-the-beloved-christmas-carol-silent-night>wiki>joseph_hermann_mohr>wiki>franz_gruber

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