From Oberndorf to the World

Published 4:26 pm Tuesday, December 5, 2017

In the title to this column, there is a word, Oberndorf. It’s the name of a village in Austria and is the birthplace of a song that will be sung millions, if not billions, of times within the next few weeks. The song is Silent Night. The song will be 200 years old next year, but if there is a song that never grows old, it’s this Christmas classic.

As a guitar player, Silent Night is of great interest. In my best Paul Harvey fashion here is the rest of the story.

There was a traveling troupe of actors performing in the small villages of the Austrian Alps in 1818. Their schedule led them to Oberndorf. Since they needed an organ for their drama and the organ at the Church of St. Nicholas wasn’t working, they used a local home to re-enact the story of Christmas.

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Their drama touched the heart of the assistant pastor of St. Nicholas, Josef Mohr, and as he returned home, he took a path that led him up a hill that overlooked the village of Oberndorf.

It’s hard for south Georgians to imagine mountain scenes like those in the European Alps, but Mohr looked down upon his village as it had been dusted by Mother Nature’s latest snowfall. It was very peaceful and majestically silent; just like the scene on a Hallmark Christmas card.

He was inspired to remember a poem he had written a few years back. The poem was about that glorious night when the angels had brought to the shepherds, abiding their flocks by night, an announcement that a Savior had been born. Hark, the herald angels sang!

Mohr imagined that the poem might make a good Christmas carol for his congregation on the following night, which happened to be Christmas Eve. The only problem was that the organ wasn’t working, so there could be no music or tune to go along with the words of his poem.

The next day, with just a few hours to spare, before the Christmas Eve service would begin, the assistant pastor spoke to the organist Franz Gruber. He gave him the poem and asked him to see if a melody would come to him to accompany the words. Gruber just happened to play a guitar and perhaps the melody could be simple enough to strum on the guitar.

It’s amazing what Gruber did with three chords and a guitar. I mentioned that I play a guitar and I’m very thankful for what good songwriters can do with three chords and a few rhyming words. That’s about all I can remember and play when it comes to a song.

On Christmas Eve in 1818 in the village of Oberndorf, Austria, a song for the ages and the world was born. Imagine hearing that song for the first time!

The organ at St. Nicholas was fixed a few weeks later and after it was fixed, Franz Gruber sat down and tested the work of the organ builder, Karl Mauracher. The song that Gruber played was, you guessed it, Silent Night.

Mauracher took the song back with him to his village and his church. From there it spread all over Europe and came to America in 1838. Since then, it has been translated into 300 languages and sung more times than can be counted.

On this Christmas Eve, almost 200 years since it was written, Silent Night will close many a Holy Communion service and many candles will be held high and, for a moment, I pray, the Prince of Peace will inhabit your heart.