Throughout nearly a century and a half, scores of legends have been woven around the conception and composition of the world’s most simple and beautiful Christmas song, “Silent Night, Holy Night.” The story itself hardly needs embellishment. Neither scholarly nor mystic interpretations are necessary, and one need not even ask what impelled the Rev. Josef Mohr to put the words of this song on paper, because he was a priest of implicit faith and childlike trust in the goodness of man. Schoolteacher Franz Gruber, well versed in music and dabbling now and then in composition, was the priest’s close friend. Both spoke to the hearts of the people and with this song gave them an anchor of hope and peace, an everlasting spring of good will.
While the song is sung in practically all civilized tongues, not many thoughts are ever given to poet and composer, nor to town and country in which they worked and lived.
It was Christmas Eve, 1818. After the Napoleonic wars, Europe was at peace, and peace also reigned in the streets and homes of Oberndorf, an old settlement of boatmen on the river Salzach, province of Salzburg, Austria. The people prepared for the traditional midnight Mass in the little church of St. Nicola. That year’s midnight Mass would be less impressive, they said, because the old organ had finally given out and the service would be without music. Some said the organ had grown tired, but the more realistic pointed out that mice had chewed up the bellows. They knew little that Mohr and his organist Gruber had found a remedy: a brand-new Christmas song of simple melody, designed to touch the heart and please the ear. During the brief winter afternoon of December 23, 1818, Mohr had handed to his friend the text of this song and a few hours later Gruber had set the words to music for two voices and choir. To provide the musical accompaniment Gruber used one of the most worldly of instruments, the guitar. We do not know exactly whether the song was first sung during or after the Mass, but we do know that the song touched the hearts of the little community of worshipers and kindled in them the desire for truth, righteousness, and good will. None even remotely guessed that this song and with it Mohr and Gruber would become immortal.
It was spring again when the organ builder Mauracher came to Oberndorf to repair the old organ. It was he who took text and music along with him to Tyrol. There the brothers Strasser, manufacturers of gloves who visited many markets and trade fairs in Europe, heard the song. Thirteen years later they sang it before a Catholic congregation in Leipzig. The song had started on its long and glorious road around the world. Christian people everywhere accepted it, but no one apparently knew poet or composer. It was not until 1854 that the Royal Chapel in Berlin made inquiries.
On December 30 of that year (1854) Gruber, then organist at the city church of Hallein, wrote a letter to Berlin giving the authentic data of the song and short biographies of the author and composer. From this letter we know that Mohr died as vicar on December 4, 1848, in Wagrein, Salzburg. He passed on, much beloved and highly respected, but so poor that the town had to pay the funeral expenses. Fame came to him posthumously. Franz Gruber had fared a little better, but according to present-day standards both author and composer were as poor as the shepherds on the fields near Bethlehem. Mohr was not a great poet, nor was Gruber to be numbered among the masters of music, but both were men imbued with the lofty spirit of humanity and Christian charity. They were indeed men of good will.
The old church of St. Nicola no longer stands. In its place stands a simple memorial chapel. Today it is a shrine receiving pilgrims from all parts of the world, and its guestbook shows many illustrious names. But one entry is perhaps the most significant:
“Don’t forget that this song is Austria’s most precious gift-not just to you and me but to the whole world.”