Stranger Than Fiction: It all began with a mouse

a-cartoon-mouse“It all began with a mouse.” Those are the immortal words of Walt Disney in reference to Mickey Mouse whose image catapulted Disney into a worldwide entertainment enterprise. But, the Disney franchise wasn’t the only innovation attributed to a mouse. A mischievous furry mouse was inadvertently responsible for a Christmas classic that is enjoyed today, almost 200 years after it was originally penned.

This stranger than fiction story begins on Christmas Eve, in the year 1818, in a small town of Oberndorf, Austria. The church organist was making final preparations for the annual Christmas Eve Mass.

This stranger than fiction story begins on Christmas Eve, in the year 1818, in a small town of Oberndorf, Austria. The church organist was making final preparations for the annual Christmas Eve Mass.

The annual Christmas Eve Mass was a special occasion in the tiny town. Each year the locals flocked to the church in droves to hear the magnificent pipe organ. It was the largest, most magnificent organ in the tiny town or, for that matter, for many, many miles. People came from miles around to hear it. The Christmas Eve Mass had become a much anticipated holiday tradition.

That morning, the church organist, Franz Gruber, went to the massive organ to rehearse one final time before Mass began. He sat down at the organ and began to play.  As he played the keys, the pipes filled with air and emitted beautiful resonating music that reverberated throughout the hallowed halls and beckoned the people on the streets.  Locals passing on the street heard the music and walked closer to the church to better hear the melodious tune.

Then the music began to quickly fade as the organ gasped its final breath. Gruber was confused. Why had his organ stopped working?  He pressed several keys. But there was nothing.  The organ was dead. He began to look for the source of   the problem. With the help of the priest, Friar Joseph Mohr, he was able to slide the organ a few feet from the wall. He then wedged himself behind the organ. There he found the problem.

A mouse had eaten a hole in the bellows. This was dreadful. The organ-mender would not be back in town for two months. Mass was several hours away and the organ that had become a local holiday tradition was broken.

Friar Mohr paced nervously. What could they do? Repairing the organ was out of the question. Canceling Mass was certainly not an option. While he paced Gruber picked up a guitar and began to play. As he strummed he tried to think of a solution. Then the solution to the problem occurred to him. He remembered a poem he had read that was written by a priest. He recited the poem to Friar Mohr who liked it.

“I could write music for that poem and we could play it at Mass” he suggested.

Friar Mohr was hesitant at first. He looked up at the clock. Mass was now only three hours away. What else could he do? The parishioners always look forward to hearing the pipe organs. They will be so disappointed. A guitar will pale in comparison to the pipe organ. But, Friar Mohr had no choice. He would have to explain to the congregation that the organ had been damaged. Hopefully, they will understand and appreciate the guitar cantata.  Still, he had lingering doubts. He instructed Gruber to work as quickly as possible. Gruber took the guitar and a quill in hand and went to work writing the music that would eventually become a holiday classic.

That evening the church was illuminated by hundreds of candles. The parishioners trudged through the snow covered streets and began to file into the grand cathedral. The massive church was filled to capacity. Soon, a boys’ choir took their positions behind the altar.  Gruber entered next with guitar in hand. Then Friar Mohr stepped slowly and reverently up to the altar.  Nervously, he turned to face his congregation. He explained to the congregation that a mouse had damaged the organ and therefore the organ was would not be a part of the cantata that evening. There was a low murmuring in the audience of disappointed voices whispering to one another.

“Our organist, Franz Gruber, recited a poem to me earlier this morning” he explained.  “The poem is entitled “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.”  He wrote music to the poem and will be accompanied tonight by the boys’ choir. I hope you will like it.” Friar Mohr then sat down and picked up the guitar.

A hushed silence fell over the church. Then on cue, the choir began to sing as Gruber directed and Friar Mohr played the guitar. Their voices echoed throughout the church “Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright.”

It was the first time that “Silent Night” was ever performed. Throughout the audience, many were moved to tears. Even the Friar himself wept. As the voices of the choir reached the highest notes, many more wept.  Friar Mohr sat nervously hoping the congregation would not be disappointed.  He gently wiped away his tears and waited expectantly as the final notes were sung.

As the song concluded there arose a thunderous applause. Friar Mohr was visibly overcome.  He looked at Gruber who smiled. Friar Mohr nodded his approval. When the Applause abated, Gruber asked the congregation to sing along. The voices of the church could be heard as far as a block away as they echoed through the hallowed cathedral in praise of the Lord. As the evening concluded, the parishioners quietly filed out of the church. Many were singing the song as they left. Friar Mohr stood in the doorway of the church and bid goodnight to his congregation as they departed. Many smiled and thanked him for a truly magical evening.

In the years to come “Silent Night” has become one of the most beloved Christmas carols. It has been recorded hundreds of times in dozens of languages around the world.

It all began on an ordinary Christmas Eve in a tiny Austrian town in 1818. It was a blessed by-product of the mischievous gnawing of a tiny mouse that was foraging for food or perhaps seeking a place to bed. Obviously, the tiny mouse never realized the impact his mischief had on our Christmas holiday. As Gruber could attest, sometimes divine inspiration comes from the most unusual places. In this case, it all began with a little mouse. Walt Disney could not have said it better himself.

Michael Williams is the author of a book entitled “Stranger than Fiction: The Lincoln Curse.” The book is a collection of 50 strange and unusual but true stories. The stories will leave the reader convinced that perhaps Mark Twain was right when he said “truth is stranger than fiction.”

He has written for more than 50 newspapers and magazines including the Civil War Times Illustrated, The Civil War Courier, the Associated Press and the Knoxville Journal.

The book is 187 pages in a softbound edition with numerous photos. The book can be purchased from amazon.com for $19.95 plus shipping and handling or you can save shipping cost and save $2 on the purchase price by ordering a signed copy directly from the author. Send $17.95 to 269 Palmer Road, Gatlinburg, TN. 37738.

The book is available in Kindle on Amazon.com for $3.99. For more information visit the website www.strangerthanfictionnews.com.

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