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Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  25 Dec 2016 12:00 AM GMT

Father Joseph Mohr sat at the old church organ. His fingers stretched over the keys, then pressed down. Nothing. He tried again. Silence echoed through the church.

The organ had been wheezing and growing quieter for months, its pipes rusted, the bellows mildewed. Father Joseph had been hoping it would hold together until the organ builder arrived to repair it in the spring. But now, on December 23, 1818, the organ had filly given out. St. Nicholas Church would have no music for Christmas.

It had been a year since Father Joseph had taken over as assistant pastor of the church in Oberndorf, a village near Salzburg in the Austrian Alps. A travelling group of actors had presented a Christmas drama at a private home in the village. Their performance had put him in a contemplative mood.

Stepping away from the organ, Father Joseph pulled on his overcoat and stepped out into the night. Moonlight sparkled off the ice-crusted trees and housetops in the village. Scrunching through the snowy streets, he was soon climbing a path leading up the mountain.

From high above Oberndorf, Father Joseph watched the Salzach river weave past St. Nicholas Church. Reveling in the majestic silence of that wintry night, he gazed down at the glowing Christmas-card like scene. As he looked out over the Austrian Alps, the pastor saw the stars shining above in the still and silent night.

Silent night? Father Joseph started. Of course! He had written a poem a couple of years before, when he had first become a priest, and had given it that very title, ‘Silent Night’. The poem was about the night when angels announced the birth of the long-awaited Messiah to shepherds on a hillside in Bethlehem.

The next morning, Father Joseph set out on another walk, carrying his poem this time. He was off to see his friend Franz Xaver Gruber, the organist for St. Nicholas Church, who lived in the next village.

Gruber was surprised to see the pastor away from church on Christmas Eve. Father Joseph handed him the poem. In a few hours, Gruber came up with a melody which could be sung with a guitar. It no longer mattered to them now that the church organ was on the blink.

That Christmas Eve, the little Oberndorf congregation heard the duo sing their new composition to the accompaniment of Gruber’s guitar. Their puzzlement soon gave way to a deep rapture, as Gruber’s melody matched the simplicity and honesty of Father Joseph’s words.

When the last notes faded into the night, the congregation remained still for a moment, then broke into applause. The new Christmas carol was a hit!

A few weeks later, well-known organ builder Karl Mauracher arrived in Oberndorf to fix the church organ. After he finished, he stepped back to let Gruber test the instrument. Gruber sat down, his fingers playing the simple melody he had written for Father Joseph’s Christmas poem.

Enchanted, Mauracher took copies of the music and lyrics of ‘Silent Night’ back to his village. There, he gave the song to two families of traveling singers — the Rainers and the Strassers. Both families performed it as part of their Christmas season repertoire in concerts all over Europe.

Before long, ‘Silent Night’ spread through the globe. The simple song first played in a mountain church in Austria on Christmas Eve nearly two centuries ago, is now the world’s most famous Christmas carol.

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.

Silent night, holy night,

Shepherds quake at the sight;

Glories stream from heaven afar,

Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!

Christ the Savior is born,

Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night, holy night,

Son of God, love’s pure light;

Radiant beams from thy holy face

With the dawn of redeeming grace,

Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,

Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

— the harbinger

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