Imagine a snowy evening in one of the old small towns of Austria, eleven miles north of Salzburg—in a little village called Oberndorf. The year is 1818. A schoolmaster and a priest are quickly rehearsing for Midnight Mass.
Father Joseph Mohr was a young twentysix. He had written a poem, “Stille Nacht,” two years earlier. Schoolmaster Franz Xaver Gruber was thirty-one and was a teacher in the primary school in nearby Arnsdorf. Father Mohr had asked Schoolmaster Gruber if he thought his six-stanza poem might perhaps be suitable for song lyrics, and if so, could Gruber, an accomplished church musician, possibly try his hand at the music.
The little parish church where they were standing was named for Sankt Nikolaus, as St. Nicholas’s name is rendered in German. This is the St. Nicholas who was an ancient Christian bishop from Greek Asia Minor, and who became known during his lifetime for leaving gifts for children, even dropping them down chimneys. He wouldn’t become the ubiquitous St. Nick of Christmas festivities and lore until later. Just five years after Mohr talked to Gruber in 1823, a distinguished seminary professor in America, Clement Clarke Moore, would write what became another famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” If you’re wondering, Why don’t I know this poem, if it is famous?, it is because you know it by its other name: the poem was soon retitled “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”— for its first line.
The name of the church where the pastor and the schoolmaster were standing seems almost providential.
So, we return to December 24, 1818. Christmas Eve that year is where the story of “Silent Night, Holy Night” begins. There, in St. Nikolaus Church, Mohr and Gruber huddled, energetically rehearsing the music Gruber had written earlier that day to go with the lyrics of his friend. It was dark outside. People were making their way to Mass. The priest and the schoolmaster stood alone in the quiet church, which was lighted only by candles.
Long before we became accustomed to priestly musicians, Father Mohr played the guitar that night, as the two men performed the carol to a delighted congregation. Both this music and these words were special. As the people were arriving for Mass, Father Mohr was plucking out the chords, first finding his way through the simple, beautiful tune.
The famous Christmas carol “Silent Night, Holy Night” is a product of two inspired. Austrian men of faith. Even so, a century later, it was the subject of misuse during the First World War in Germany, when the original lyrics were rewritten to support a war. Germans were told by their Kaiser to sing the new version; but with the original tune unchanged, many knew that the spirit had been corrupted. This was a tragic instance of intention to destroy what had become almost gospel. How could Christians abandon a wish and a prayer for peace for people everywhere? Something similar took place once again, during the Nazi reign in Germany another twenty or so years later, when Adolf Hitler sought to be praised as a savior, and “Silent Night” was rewritten once more. Again, we can assume, Christians knew the difference.
If you ever have an opportunity to visit Salzburg, Austria, today, you might want to see the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the setting of the great twentieth-century musical The Sound of Music. But be sure, too, to visit the Stille-Nacht-Kapelle, or Silent Night Chapel, in nearby Oberndorf, and its adjacent museum. The original St. Nikolaus Church is no longer standing, having been long ago destroyed by a flood. But in the Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf you can still see many artifacts relating to Fr. Mohr and Mr. Gruber. And if you happen to be there on Christmas Eve, you can attend a memorial Mass during which “Silent Night” is movingly sung in a variety of languages. The spirit—as it was intended—lives on.