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The Christmas That Gave Us A Much-Loved Melody

The nibbling of mice on the organ bellows of St. Nikolaus Church in the small Austrian village of Oberndorf near Salzburg threatened to ruin Christmas Eve mass in the year 1818. Since none of the available music was suitable without an organ as accompaniment, the curate had to compose a substitute - or face a silent Christmas.

That is how ''Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht'' (''Silent Night, Holy Night''), one of the most popular Christmas carols ever written, came into being.

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According to legend and some documentary evidence, early on Dec. 24, 1818, Father Josef Mohr, the young curate of Oberndorf, rushed the six stanzas he had dashed off earlier to Franz Xaver Gruber, the local schoolmaster, cantor, and church organist.

Mohr hoped that Gruber could compose an accompanying melody in time for it to be sung that night. Herr Gruber complied, and during the midnight mass the two men sang this now-famous carol for the first time, accompanied by guitar and with the choir singing the refrain.

Several years later, in 1825, when funds to repair the organ had finally been raised, Master Karl Mauracher, an organ builder, traveled from his home in Zillertal in the Tirol to repair the organ and heard the song.

He was so impressed with the harmony and simplicity of this little D-major tune in 6/8 time that he took a copy home with him and began introducing the song to the many traveling vocal groups passing through his village.

In 1831 the Strasser family, also from Zillertal, took ''Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht'' to the Leipzig trade fair, where its popularity spread even farther.

Still later, in 1838, a faulty version of this already well-established Christmas carol was printed. Gruber attempted to correct the situation by publishing the accurate version in 1854.

But, the somewhat faulty version is the one still sung today. Although the original manuscript has been lost, the small museum in nearby Hallein has one of the copies written in Gruber's own hand.

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A small memorial chapel has been built on the former site of St. Nikolaus Church in Oberndorf honoring Mohr and Gruber's musical achievement.

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