A Faithful Narrative of How We Got ‘Silent Night’

Franz Gruber was picking his nose and thinking about Christmas. It had come to his attention recently that lots of people hated the holiday and he was wondering how he could make it worse. At that point, civilization had not declined to where “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” or “O Holy Night” were actually perpetrated in churches. This is the true story of how we got there.

There were flies still trapped in Franz Xaver Gruber’s grubby windows. Perhaps searching for inspiration, he began to catch them one by one, and removed every appendage, dropping the writhing black bodies on the table. Now, he thought, how to proceed?

He considered drums and trumpets, a real ruckus. But, he thought as he finished the last fly, I want to be subtle. I want it to last. “I want something,” he said out loud, peering through the grubby window, “something people will . . .” and he did not say what it was but just smole a smile. He had got the idea, sitting there peering through the window at a couple of drunks lurching together in the ghastly light of a lamp.

Absentmindedly, he popped one of the flies into his mouth. As he pondered his idea, he savored the fly. When he had finished the flies he was still smirking, his idea full-formed.

The door burst open at that moment and in came the failed poet, Joseph Mohr. Mohr had been a theologian. He had at one time championed a view that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father and had as a result been laughed out of seminary and perpetually banned from doing theology. This was long before the decline of civilization we witness today because it was in 1818, but, as we shall see, Joseph Mohr played a part in that decline. He had turned his skills to poetry, unaccountably, but only achieved praise songs, which, because it was 1818, decline of civilization, etc, etc, people of course did not introduce into worship or even consider to have merit whatsoever since, of course, they had none. This is the story of how he pulled one over all of those stalwarts, and it does not end well.

“Nice and quiet here,” he said, sitting down. “I’m surprised you don’t have any flies. Everybody has flies still trapped in the windows.”

Gruber grunted.

“Creeps me out. How can you stand the silence, man? You know what I hate, Gruby, what I really, really hate? I hate Christmas, man. Do you hate Christmas?”

Gruber grunted once more.

“I want to . . . sabotage it.”

Gruber leaned forward, accidentally brushing the flies’ wings and legs off the table in a winking snowfall of insect horror.

“I want to make people . . .” Mohr’s imagination, as usual, faltered.

“Hold hands and sing a Christmas song by candlelight?” Gruber hissed. “Totally feel that it is all about how they feel? Have,” he was unable to hold back at this point a sinister, choking, defunctive chortle, “a last stanza without any verb at all?”

“Eggzackly! Oh man, that is diabolical, Gruby! That would totally sabotage Christmas.” Mohr’s jaw worked and his hands flapped, as was his wont when geeking out. “Wait, no verb in the last stanza? Isn’t that a little too far . . . just, a bit too obvious? Won’t the real theologians smell sulfur?”

“It is daring, but we could start a trend!”

“It would start a whole chain of Christmas songs of dubious merit, descending to utter banality till Christian civilization became so ruined . . . it . . . it would be  . . . uh, ruined.”

Gruber smole a smile, and the devil entered him, and he composed the music then and there while foaming slightly at the mouth.

“Pluckety, pluck,” he hummed to himself,

“Pluckety, pluck

“Munchy, munch

“Munchy, munch

“Grossity, grossity

“Yukkity, yuk,”

etc.

Mohr, meanwhile, admittedly managed to improve on his previous praise songs, no doubt spurred by malice and having his natural inhibitions and misguided proclivities suffocated by the terrible, creepy atmosphere pervading the room.

* * *

And that is the most accurate historical account you’ll ever encounter for the origin of that unfortunate song. I hardly used Wikipedia and thought about going through the lyrics in German but was held back by the consideration that there may be a verb in the original in the last stanza, though I seriously doubt it. Anyway, this is what comes of following the Normative Principle: Advent, Lessons and Carols, Silent Night, Candles with those little cardboard shields at the bottom, Holding Hands in a circle, Nausea and Doom.

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