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Joseph Mohr – Probably Not Resting Silently In That Good Night

According to the commercials on television and the calendar, the holiday season has arrived, even though the weather feels like we skipped right past the holidays into early December. So with the holidays looming and last issue’s column about novelty songs milling around in my head, I remembered a column I wrote back in 2000 that told “the rest of the story” about the most famous Christmas carol ever written: “Silent Night.”

What you take from this story remains to be seen. Indeed, if you even believe this story remains to be seen. But allow me to note that even I can’t vouchsafe all of the facts since the website I found these details on has now seemingly vanished into oblivion. Nonetheless, I am undeterred and here is my story of “Silent Night.”

The carol “Silent Night” was first performed on Christmas Eve in 1818 in a tiny church in Oberndorf, Austria. The song began as a poem written by Rev. Joseph Mohr in 1816 and, according to many sources, on Christmas Eve morning in 1818, Mohr traveled to his friend Franz Gruber’s home and asked him to set the poem to music for that evening’s midnight mass. Gruber, a musician and schoolteacher, complied and that evening’s mass featured the “world premiere” of the new song (though with a slightly different melody than we are familiar with today).

Whether Mohr actually gave Gruber less than a day to compose the song has never been completely verified, but almost all sources report this version of the story. Of particular note about the song’s debut is the fact that is was sung to a guitar accompaniment, a highly unusual practice during this era, which has led many to speculate that the urgency of the song’s composition and the subsequent performance with a guitar, was the result of problems with the church’s organ.

Everyone pretty well agrees on these details, but the story doesn’t end there! So brace yourselves as you read the strange tale of Joseph Mohr’s head, and one of the mysteries of Christmas that has absolutely nothing to do with religion of any kind.

By the time the world moved into the 20th century, “Silent Night” was famous throughout Europe. During the years 1913 – 1914, the community of Oberndorf began to make preparations for a centennial celebration of the song. Among the plans a village committee devised was the commissioning of a sculpted plaque showing both Rev. Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber in relief. After due consideration, the committee in charge of the planning selected a well-known sculptor by the name of Mühlbacher who, according to all reports, was delighted to accept the commission.

Unfortunately, the committee and Mühlbacher were faced with a distinct problem: while numerous portraits of Franz Gruber were available, there were absolutely no portraits of Rev. Mohr.

Mohr’s last assignment had been in the town of Wagrain, where he died and was buried. So the good people of Oberndorf, in conjunction with the citizenry of Wagrain, had Mohr’s body exhumed, removed the skull from the grave, and shipped the skull to Mühlbacher, who set about to create a sculpture of Mohr based entirely on a reconstruction from the skull!

Misfortune occurred, however, when Mühlbacher, after completing his portrait of Mohr, suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side of his body. After a long convalescence, he was eventually able to complete the portrait of Gruber, and the finished plaque was delivered to the citizens of Oberndorf where it was installed in front of the New Nikolai Church.

Now, at the very least, after all the work was completed and the plaque was installed, you would think that the Mohr’s skull had been returned to Wagrain to be reunited with the body. Not so, however! Despite repeated requests by the people of Wagrain, the head remained in Oberndorf. The problem, it seems, is that, with the unexpected delay in Mühlbacher’s work, the skull was misplaced.

Unsubstantiated reports tell of the skull being stored for several years in a cardboard box in the post office at Oberndorf. Following this, the cardboard box containing the skull was supposedly moved to the local constable’s home where it remained for the next 10 years. Curiously, for reasons probably known only to Austrian law enforcement, the constable deemed it best to keep the skull under the bed he and his wife shared.

In 1928, a skull that was declared to be the head of Rev. Mohr was interred in the newly constructed Silent Night Memorial Chapel, which was built on the site of the St. Nicholas Church where Mohr and Gruber’s “Silent Night” was first performed. Whether this skull was actually Mohr’s has never been verified and regardless of whether it actually is Mohr’s or not, Mohr’s body still lies in a grave in Wagrain without a head.

So there you have it, folks. The rest of the story as can only be reported in the Peninsula Pulse and this column. I am often accused of having a mind filled with useless information, but by golly it’s the best source of useless information this county has to offer!