The Story of A Silent Night

It was in 1818 and they say it’s all the fault of a poor church mouse. A few years prior, Napoleon suffered defeat at Waterloo, and they exiled him to the island of St Helena, one of the most remote islands in the south Atlantic. That was far, far away from the Austrian countryside in which our poor church mouse lived. 

An Austrian Winter Wonderland

It is winter in the village of Oberndorf, which is close to Salzburg on the Austrian-Bavarian border. It’s a poor region and often the people starve. Like all other villages, Oberndorf has a church, St. Nicklas. Yes, the church was dedicated to the same guy that an Atlanta bubble empire introduced to the entire world as Santa. But his second career as manufacturer and distributer of toys to nice children had not yet taken off. At the time we talk about, Nicholas is still doing the usual saint stuff. Listening to prayers and then taking the concerns to God. 

The church of St. Nicklas in Oberndorf was a simple village church, – nothing to write home about. It was good enough to give the people hope that if not this life, but then surely the afterlife had something better in store for them than hunger and poverty. 

n 1818, the nobility ruled by the grace of God. They said that it was God’s will that they were rich, and that the necessities of life remained as illusive for the poor as trickling down tax cuts are today.

St. Nicholas Church, Oberndorf, 19th century
The Church Mouse

Back to St. Nicklas church. What it lacks in wealth, it makes up in rodents. St. Nicklas had a mouse, they say. That mouse was as hungry as the people. Usually when a mouse is hungry, it raids the stores of the people. When the people starve, the mouse needs an alternative. That alternative was the organ bellows at St. Nicklas. Doesn’t sound like a gourmet meal, but if you are a poor church mouse, you have to be frugal. Our mouse, the story goes, was so hungry that it gnawed a hole into the organ bellows of St. Nicklas. Many say that story is a myth. That is entirely possible, but what is definitely true is that the organ of St. Nicklas broke on Christmas Eve in 1818. That meant that there would be no music during the midnight mass, one of the most solemn occasions in the church calendar. It was the night when Christians all around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in the little town of Bethlehem, which was almost as far away from Oberndorf as Napoleon was on St. Helena.

Josephus Franciscus Mohr

St. Nicklas was the church where the Roman Catholic priest Josephus Franciscus Mohr served the people of this poor region. He started his way into life in extremely peculiar ways. He was born on December 11, in 1792, to Anna Schoiberin. As you notice by the name, Mohr’s mother was not married to his father, which made Mohr, in the time’s parlance, a bastard.

Organ Bellows

At the end of the 18th century, that was a problem, a tremendous problem. His father was Franz Mohr, a mercenary soldier and a deserter. Staying true to his calling, he deserted Joseph’s mother before their child was born. 

At his baptism, Josef Wohlmuth became his godfather and, according to custom, the child received his name, Joseph. Wohlmuth is an illustrious character. He was the last executioner of Salzburg. The community depended on his lethal services, but no-one would touch an executioner with a ten-foot pole. The people despised him. If you visit Salzburg today, you can still see that. The Henkershaus, the executioner’s house, sits lonely in the middle of the city separated by a lot of space it from the neighboring city blocks. The righteous citizens of Salzburg set in stone how they avoided proximity to their executioner as if he had carried the plague. Looks like Anna scraped the barrel to find a godfather for her baby. 

To achieve success and recognition in the early 19th century, one needed to be born into the right family. If you were of noble birth, you would make your way, even if you were as stupid as the proverbial pole. Next best would be a wealthy commoner, followed by artisans, traders and land-owning peasants. The remaining 90% enjoyed themselves in the gutter. There was one exception: as strange as that may sound for modern ears, it was the church. Since the middle ages, the church was the only avenue for low-born but talented individuals to pursue a career. Josef Mohr had talent, and it seemed a vast supply of it. Johna Nepomuk Hiernle, vicar and leader of music at Salzburg Cathedral, took notice and became his patron. He pulled the levers of power on behalf of his protégé and sent him to various Benedictine schools and, finally, to seminary. Since Mohr was of illegitimate birth, they granted him a special dispensation so that the seminary would accept him. He graduated, and the church ordained him as a priest in 1815, three years before the mouse supposedly gnawed a hole in the organ bellows.

A Pecuilar Priest

In the years between ordination and the silent Holy Night, they say, Mohr habitually broke the law. He took church funds, purchased meat from poachers and gave it to the poor. One day, they caught Mohr, but surprisingly, he faced no charges. Possibly, some sympathetic official of the Austrian Empire accidentally dropped the incriminating police report behind a cupboard. Out of sight, they forgot about it, or maybe the mice ate it. But Mohr’s lawlessness earned him a reputation. It seems the church leadership made efforts to remove him from his position. His superiors write in his personal files he was lacking wisdom in the care of souls and in his studies. He was lazy; they write. Instead, he joked with members of the opposite sex. And if that was not shocking enough, he frequented beer halls, drank, and then he joined his fellow tanked Teutons in publicly singing inappropriate non-religious songs. And now comes the kicker. Worst of all, he lacked a priest’s sense for the absolutely vital duty of licking the boots of his superiors. A follow-up investigation revealed that the majority of the accusations were largely fictional. He could stay at St. Nicklas in Oberndorf, and that took him to the Christmas night where the mouse had silenced the organ of St. Nicklas.

Franz Xavier Gruber

Upon leaving the church, Mohr gazed at the breathtaking mountain panorama of the Austrian alps, triggering a memory of a poem he penned two years ago. And he also remembered that he had a friend, Franz Xavier Gruber, a schoolteacher and his church organist. But Franz Xavier could not just play organ. He could also play guitar and he could compose music. Father Mohr thought that when he brought his poem and his friend Gruber together, that encounter might produce a passable substitute for proper church music and then the Holy Night would not have to be silent. 

In all truth, that thought was rather risque. God meant for the guitar to be played in pubs or beer-gardens, not in churches. Guitar players animated the Saturday evening crowd to down another one or ten Steins with their smashing drinking songs. The guitar had no place in church. For every tune, they paid the players in the golden liquid that was perfected in the West Bohemian town of Pilsen, another part of the vast Austrian empire. But father Mohr probably thought, Christmas needs music and when you have any complaints about guitars, take them to the church mouse. It’s the mouses fault anyway, if that mouse story is true. 

Silent Night

So, at midnight, Mohr and Gruber stood before their congregation, guitar in hand. The good people of Oberndorf might have wondered what holy custom their priest was about to insult now? Mohr and Gruber debuted the carol that defined Christmas from that holy night on. They sang, Stille Nacht, – Silent Night. After they finished, the congregation applauded, as if they were in a theater or a pub. That is why you don’t play guitar in a church, because you don’t applaud in church, even if you like what you hear.

Barricade at the University, 1848 Revolution in Vienna, Austria
Life Goes On

Gruber and Mohr went on separate journeys after their joint endeavor to fill the silent night with music. Mohr moved around a lot and pastored several churches. He didn’t stay long anywhere. He died in 1848 when revolution breaks out in the German states and in the Austrian Empire. The people had enough of being ruled by obnoxious nobles who didn’t care if they lived or died. It’s a revolution that ultimately fails, but it sets the nobility of the German-speaking world onto their long march onto the trash pile of history. Gruber stays in Oberndorf to serve as an organist and a teacher. He fulfills his life’s dream to become a full-time musician in 1835, when he accepts a position as choir director, organist and cantor at a church in Hallein.

Karl Mauracher

If not for Karl Mauracher, the organ repair man, the story of the Christmas Carol Silent Night would have ended here. A couple of days after Christmas, he appeared on the scene and repaired the damaged organ, whether the mouse or something else caused it. He discovered the paper with Silent Night on it. He liked it and he took it home to Tyrol and gave it to two families who made a living as traveling vocal ensembles. 

They introduced Stille Nacht to the world and sang it on Christmas in 1819. They sang it for the Czar of Russia and for the Austrian Emperor. It became the favorite Christmas carol of the Prussian king Frederick Wilhelm the Fourth. They also took it into the New World. Silent Night was first performed in New York city outside of Trinity Church in 1839. Silent Night became popular in Europe and America by the mid-century. But there was one problem. When Mauracher gave the sheet music to the singers, he failed to disclose who wrote the song. Having a great Christmas Carol written by nobody-knew-who did not jive well with the Royal Prussian Court Chapel in Berlin. “What do you mean we don’t know who wrote that? Someone must have written that. Carols don’t write themselves. We need a name, or the Prussian obsession with detail is in unredeemable peril!” In 1854, they wrote to the Roman Catholic Benedictines in Salzburg to save their Lutheran souls and tell them who wrote the carol. Word of that request reached Gruber, and he wrote to the Prussian court, telling them the story of how he and Mohr averted the Christmas night to be silent.

Weltkulturerbe / World-Cultural-Heritage

Since that time a Christmas without Silent Night, by Mohr and Gruber is unthinkable. They translated the song into countless languages, and the United Nations declared it World-Cultural-Heritage. God bless Mohr and Gruber, the mouse and the Austrian beer hall culture, without which the Night before Christmas would be much more silent.

Silent Night Chapel, Oberndorf, Austria

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Olaf Baumann

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