Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Story of Silent Night

The phrase repeats itself over and over again in his mind:

Silent night, holy night,
Stille nacht, heilige nacht.

It's the first line from a poem this young Austrian priest had written two years before. Now he can't get the phrase out of his mind. "Silent night, holy night."

Tonight is Christmas Eve and St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, north of Salzburg, will be chock-full of people. Father Joseph Mohr has a homily in mind, a message for his flock on this sacred night, but he needs a carol, something special to cap off the service.

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright...

The words won't go away. "I need a tune!" he says out loud, shaking his head. "I wonder if Franz can help me. I hope it's not too late." Franz Gruber is the schoolteacher in the nearby village of Arnsdorf -- a gifted musician, organist at the Arnsdorf church, and occasional substitute organist at St. Nicholas. "Franz will help me!" he says to himself. "He can't resist a musical challenge."

Quickly now he slings on his heavy coat, dons a fur cap and gloves, and ventures into the brisk December morning. The snow is crunchy underfoot as he makes his way across the churchyard towards Arnsdorf, just a 20 minute walk. "Silent night, holy night ... silent night, holy night." The rhythm of the words echoes with each step.

Elizabeth opens the door at his knock. "Father Mohr, how nice of you to stop by. Franz will be glad to see you." She takes his coat and ushers him in. Franz is picking something out on his guitar.

"Franz, remember that poem I told you about: 'Silent Night'?" says Mohr. "I know it's too late to ask, but could you help put a tune to it? I want to sing it tonight for Christmas Eve."

Gruber's face lights up. A challenge. A song. He takes the lyrics from the priest and begins to say them over and over, looking for a cadence. Then he hums a line and scratches it down.

Mohr soon tires of the process and begins to play with the children. But within an hour or so, Gruber seems to have a melody and is working out the chords on his guitar. "Father, how does this sound?" he calls and begins to sing the words:

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm all is bright...

He stops to make a correction in the manuscript, and then continues:

...'Round yon virgin, Mother and Child,
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!

Traditional nativity scene in Portugal.

Father Mohr is ecstatic. On the second verse Gruber's deep voice is joined by Mohr's rich tenor. Elizabeth, baby on her hip, who has been humming along, now joins them on the last verse. The song fills their home with its gentle words and memorable melody.

More tomorrow . . .

Christmas hints:

Wanna buy a live, cut tree? Better remember these things before you head to that tree farm to cut your own!
  • Don't leave home without tools and measurements. How much room to you need? How tall of a tree do you want? Width? Take gloves (yucky sap!) and a small saw. Don't forget your camera!
  • Shop early or online.
  • Know what type of tree you want: Fraser Fir, Douglas Fir, Balsam Fir, Colorado Blue Spruce, Scotch Pine, Eastern Red Cedar, White Spruce, Eastern White Pine, White (Concolor) Fir, Virginia Pine.
  • If you shop at a shopping tree lot, test for freshness (look for dryness, musty smells, brown needles or excessive needle loss).
  • If you shop at a shopping tree farm, expect to do a lot of walking! Ask ahead about services and pricing.

I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. --Charles Dickens


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