1816 had been a year of great suffering for many Austrians. In the wake of the Napoleonic wars and a major crop failure that brought famine and epidemics in its wake, comfort and joy for most people seemed a long way off.
As a writer and musician, 24-year-old Joseph Mohr responded to these hardships with a poem – Stille Nacht. Perhaps its lines gave him a little personal comfort that the world might once again know peace. But he never shared it with anyone until Christmas Eve 1818, in a small church in Oberndorf, Austria.
He was an assistant priest at the church; his friend and school teacher Franz Gruber was the organist. There are many stories around how the poem came to be a song, and why its original performance was accompanied by a guitar rather than the organ. Some say a mouse had chewed the organ’s valves, others that the organ had flood damage, others that Mohr simply loved the sound of Gruber’s guitar.
No matter. When the Christmas Eve mass had finished, the two men sang Stille Nacht for the congregation, after which the song and its writers slipped into oblivion. It wasn’t until various performing families of Austrian singers brought the song to other parts of Europe and North America that Mohr and Gruber got the recognition they deserved. Now, the carol is sung around the world in more than 300 languages. Just this week, my Facebook feed featured its words in Cree, Inuktitut, and Gwi’chin, three of Canada’s Indigenous languages.
Austria is understandably proud of its native song, and this month is celebrating its 200th anniversary in towns around the country. Salzburg has a Silent Night museum exhibition. Tonight, 6000 people are expected to visit the little chapel in Oberndorf to sing in their native languages. A few days ago, I was lucky enough to be part of Innsbruck’s celebration, in which the mayor, himself a singer and choir director, conducted 621 of us halfway up a mountain as the snow fell thick and fast .
No matter where you are in the world as you read this, I wish you a holiday season of calm and brightness and a year ahead filled with heavenly peace.