Oberndorf, Austria, Christmas Eve, 1818: In the ensuing centuries, stories will be told about what happens this night. Father Joseph (Josef) Mohr, assistant pastor of St. Nicholas Church, has words he wants set to music for tonight’s Mass. He brings the lyrics to a schoolteacher named Franz Gruber, who serves part time as the church’s organist and choir director. By that evening, Gruber has created a melody for two voices, choir and guitar accompaniment. For years, people will wonder: Why guitar, when the Church had an organ? Is it simply because Father Mohr played the guitar and could accompany himself?

This evening, at midnight Mass, Father Mohr sings tenor. Gruber sings bass. Words no one has heard before fill the small church, promising peace and salvation after so much turmoil for Germany — and the rest of Europe, due to war and unrest:

 

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,

Alles schläft; einsam wacht

Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.

Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,

Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

 

Silent night, holy night;

All is calm, all is bright.

Round yon virgin, mother and child;

Holy infant, so tender and mild.

Sleep in heavenly peace.

Sleep in heavenly peace.

 

After Long Suffering, Peace

For a time, the names of Mohr and Gruber were forgotten, and Silent Night was mistaken for a folk song.

When the story of its last-minute composition came to light, people began to elaborate upon the scanty facts. Some claimed a guitar was used because church mice rendered the organ inoperable by chewing through the bellows. Hanna-Barbera even created an animated Christmas special, including the mice and adding a grumpy Bürgermeister and a storm for dramatic effect. Michael Neureiter is president of Stille Nacht Gesellschaft (Silent Night Association) in Austria, which was founded to “keep the memory of the genesis of the song and its authors alive.” Neureiter observes that, after the devastation of World War I, there was a “marked increase in Silent Night remembrance,” leading to works of art, new landmarks and museums and ongoing research into the song, its creators and the communities where they lived.

Peace was not in ample supply in Austria in the early 19th century. The Napoleonic wars had plunged much of Europe into chaos, and Oberndorf was not spared. Located in the Bavarian state of Salzburg, it had been ruled by prince-archbishops — with both spiritual and temporal power — for almost six centuries. The last of them was the unloved Archbishop Hieronymus von Colloredo, remembered mostly for patronizing and then firing a talented but erratic young court musician and composer named Mozart.

When the archbishop was chased from the state by French troops in 1800, few missed his autocratic rule. Though Archbishop Colloredo held his title until his death in 1812, he would never rule Salzburg again, nor would any of his bishop successors. At the Congress of Vienna, the city where Silent Night was born was split: half going to the Austrian Empire and the other half to the Kingdom of Bavaria. The Church lost her temporal power in the region, and leadership was permanently secularized.

The character of Colloredo might provide a clue to the origins of Silent Night. There was a suspicion that this aloof man harbored Lutheran tendencies. He banned pilgrimages and other “superstitious practices”; simplified Mass settings, ritual and decoration; and introduced hymns in the German language. Were these innovations in Father Mohr’s mind when he composed the lyrics in his native tongue?

There were other signs and portents in the air in those years. Ash from an Indonesia volcano blotted out the sun and caused widespread crop failures as far away as Salzburg. Fires damaged large sections of the city along the river.

And in the midst of this chaos and transformation, Father Mohr wrote about heavenly peace.

 

The Travels of a Song

The beautiful melody and deceptively simple words carried a profound message. There’s a deep incarnational theology at work in the six verses of Silent Night, which float upon the gentle melody.

The world sleeps as salvation comes (in a literal translation) “from Heaven’s golden height,” “all power of fatherly love poured forth,” witnessed by “only the intimate holy pair” of Joseph and the Blessed Mother.

This was “Already long ago planned for us, / When the Lord frees from wrath / Since the beginning of ancient times.”

“The descriptive words of Joseph Mohr reflect simple piety,” says Peter Unkelbach, emeritus curate at the Pontifical Institute, Santa Maria dell’Anima, Rome. “It speaks to the soul of man. The secret of Christmas is revealed to astonished ‘hearts,’ not sober critical thinkers. The charm of the song touches the soul, gives expression to profound premonitions and opens emotions that are often neglected in everyday life.”

The melody itself has a simple elegance of a folk song, which is why it may have been mistaken as one for so many years. Although the original manuscript is lost, copies were made by Gruber and the song was remembered locally. Famed organ builder Karl Mauracher came to work on the organ at St. Nicholas — maybe those mice had finally eaten the bellows at last? — and took a copy back home with him to the Ziller Valley. There, it was heard by the Strassers, a family of glovers who performed folk songs at the Advent market to help sell their wares. Some of the notes were changed, and this version was heard by the music publisher August Friese, who printed it in 1832 as an “authentic Tirolean folk song.”

From there it made its way into songbooks and became a standard for the various groups of Von Trapp-like family singers. Another family, the Rainers, added it to their repertoire and performed it before Emperor Franz I and Tsar Alexander I. They took it to America, where it was heard for the first time there in 1839, at the Alexander Hamilton Monument outside Trinity Church in New York City.

 

Origins and Destiny

The true origin of the song — which in addition to being called a folk song was variously attributed to Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and others — was still a matter of debate until 1995, when an original manuscript of the score was discovered and authenticated.

The document reads, “Text by Joseph Mohr — confirmed by my own signature — assistant priest 1816,” indicating the year he first wrote the words, and adding, “Melody by Fr. Xav. Gruber.”

Almost 100 years after the song’s composition, war once again ravaged Europe, but at midnight on Christmas Eve 1914, the guns fell silent. In Flanders, along the front, men could be heard on both sides singing Silent Night in their own languages. Those languages continue to multiply, with at least 140 translations bringing the simple and profound message around the world: Christ the Savior is born.

Thomas L. McDonald writes about the unusual side of Church history at WeirdCatholic.com.