The Year Without a Sun

The moment you step off the train in Obendorf, Austria, you’ll think you’re in a fairy tale. Ambling through the postcard hamlet is the Salzach River; the snow-capped Alps watch from a distance. A 10-minute stroll and you’re climbing steps to a small chapel. Once inside, stained glass windows honoring Father Joseph Mohr, the parish priest of St. Nicholas Church remind you why you came.

It was 1816 when the river flooded. Bargers who made their living transporting salt were out of work. Twelve years of Napoleonic wars had decimated the country. As Christmas approached many were dubbing it, “The Year Without a Sun.” Temperatures had nose-dived following a volcanic eruption in faraway Indonesia. The Northern hemisphere had suffered an unprecedented global calamity as volcanic ash spewed skyward, eclipsing the sun, bringing snow in summer, and triggering crop failure, starvation, and death. Many believed it to be the end of the world.

In the village of Mariapfarr, Father Joseph Mohr’s congregation needed a shot of hope. So Mohr sat down and penned a poem about the Christ child who brought peace into darkness—a Savior who still saves, a God who still cares.

A year later, in 1817, Mohr transferred to the parish of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf and took that poem to his new friend, an esteemed local schoolteacher and organist Franz Gruber. “Would you compose music for it?” he asked. And so a song was born which the two planned to debut after the Christmas Eve service was over, for in those days a guitar was deemed inappropriate for formal worship.

They had no idea the Strasser Family, popular folk singers, would sing it at festivals and fairs and finally at the royal palace, where those four nervous kids would give “Silent Night” a royal nudge. But when that Christmas Eve service ended, nobody left. So Joseph and Franz stood before the people and sang words that would touch millions for centuries to come.

“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright, round yon virgin mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.”

Some say the organ was broken, others say it was just fine. What we do know is that the spirits of the people were broken. And into that dark night, two friends brought “Silent Night” to life, with Mohr quietly strumming his sycamore wood guitar, a guitar you can view to this day in the Silent Night Museum in Hallein, Austria. Along with its sheet music, the guitar is insured for $1 million. The message it helped bring is priceless. We need it now as they needed it then: Christ the savior is born.

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