The Story of Silent Night

BOOK: The Story of Silent Night
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Paul Gallico relates in his own inimitable way the story of the best known Christmas carol in the world. It is a tale where truth is touched by legend and research is coloured by imagination, and it tells of a village priest and a school teacher in a tiny Austrian hamlet who, more than a hundred years ago, wrote the words and music which are sung today at Christmas in at least seventy different tongues.

Since the publication of
The Snow Goose
early in World War II Paul Gallico has established himself as one of the best loved authors in the world. He has put into this Christmas story all the warmth and charm for which he is so justly famous.


The Snow Goose
The Lonely
Trial by Terror
The Small Miracle
The Foolish Immortals
Love of Seven Dolls
Flowers for Mrs Harris
Mrs Harris Goes to New York
Too Many Ghosts
Love, Let Me Not Hunger
Three Stories
The Hand of Mary Constable
Mrs Harris, M.P.
The Man who was Magic


The Steadfast Man: A Life of St. Patrick
The Hurricane Story
Confessions of a Storyteller
The Silent Miaow
The Story of Silent Night


The Day the Guinea-Pig Talked
The Day Jean-Pierre Was Pignapped
The Day Jean-Pierre Went Round the World

William Heinemann Ltd


First published 1967

© Paul Gallico 1967

© A. G. Mathemata 1967

Reprinted 1967, 1968

ISBN: 0 434 28056 9



ilent night, holiest night,
Darknesss flies, all is light,
Shepherds hear the Angels sing:
Hallelujah, hail the King,
Jesus, the Saviour is here
Jesus the Saviour is here!

Silent night, holiest night,
Guiding star, lend thy light,
See the Eastern Magi bring,
Gifts and homage to our King,
Jesus, the Saviour is here!
Jesus the Saviour is here:

Silent night, holiest night,
Wond’rous star, lend thy light,
With the Angels let us sing,
Hallelujah to the King.
Jesus, our Saviour is here,
Jesus, our Saviour is here!


his is a story where truth is already touched by legend and research is coloured by imagination. Can anyone say for certain who is destined to be famous? And why should there be a note in history of the son of a poor Austrian weaver or the bastard of a musketeer serving in Salzburg? Who could foresee in a young country priest and a humble schoolteacher-organist the stuff of romance and the seeds of genius?

Yet one hundred and fifty years have not erased the memory of Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber, respectively poet and composer of the Christmas hymn
Silent Night.
A number of facts have come to light concerning their origins, lives and deaths. Yet there are long periods of silence in the histories of both which invite speculation to fill in the chinks where research runs into the dead end of events now forgotten or distorted. However, imagination is aided by the fact that there are counterparts of these men living today in the same rustic backwaters where they flourished.

If one knows something of the villages and country towns of Austria, one feels closer to them for there the yesterdays are not so far removed. Progress in Europe has spread irregularly, leaving here and there odd little pockets which have remained almost unaltered through several centuries. Such are the towns of Oberndorf and Hallein and the hamlet of Arnsdorf, all in the immediate neighbourhood of Salzburg. The tempo of life is little changed from the days a century and a half ago when Gruber and Mohr dwelt there. No one, least of all themselves, ever expected that they would leave an indelible and unforgettable mark upon the hearts of millions.

Here is how I believe it to have come about.

P. G.
Monaco, April 1967

“ ’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse . . .”

(Clement C. Moore)

ut on the night of 23 December 1818, in the little Austrian town of Oberndorf near Salzburg on the banks of the frozen river Salzach, a mouse—so the story goes—did stir.

He not only stirred, but he invaded the organ loft of the Church of St. Nikola with its onion tower, reminder of the days when the Turkish tide had washed up that far to the west. There, because he was a cold mouse and a hungry one, he perpetrated a deed and initiated a chain of events that was to resound to the farthest corners of the earth.

t was the following morning, which had dawned crisp and clear, Christmas weather with the snow lodged a foot high on the sloping roofs of the houses, that an important gentleman in a blue frock coat, flowered waistcoat, white stock, beaver hat, and woollen muffler wound about his neck, crunched the five miles that separated the tiny hamlet of Arnsdorf from Oberndorf. By a side door he entered the Church of St. Nikola, took off his coat and sat down at the organ to run through the programme of hymns for the midnight Mass that evening.

His name was Franz Gruber, a dark-haired man of about thirty-one, with a pleasant face and somewhat long nose, cleft chin and a touch of humour about his mouth. The world had never heard of him but in the small ponds of the two neighbouring communities he was a very large frog indeed. In Arnsdorf, which was hardly more than a wide place in the road, he was the schoolmaster and sexton and in Oberndorf-on-the-Salzach, the organist. By day he taught the children of Arnsdorf in the schoolhouse where he lived above the single classroom, and as sacristan of the church functioned at baptisms, weddings and funerals as well. On Sundays and holidays, when there were services, he went to Oberndorf to provide sacred music.

BOOK: The Story of Silent Night
7.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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