Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Most Silent Night: The Story of a Broken Organ at Christmas

“It’s such a silent night,” said Father Joseph on a quiet Christmas Eve in 1816 in a church in Salzburg, Austria. The day before, he had visited a sick child in the Austrian countryside, reminding him of the Christ child. He prayed for peace and asked God to bless the family and their child amid the snowy winter hillside. 

A day later, when he tried to play his church organ, he discovered that mice had chewed through the bellows that were used to supply the instrument with wind. Although he tried to fix them, the music was stilled. Water from a nearby river had also flooded parts of the church and damaged organ parts, making them icy.

“What are we going to do?” Father Joseph said, cleaning up the water and mice droppings in the sanctuary. 

“Maybe if I write a new song, we could use the guitar instead of the organ for the Christmas Eve service. Then I could raise money with Christmas Eve offering to buy a new organ for the church.”

As he made his way into his office, he considered the sickly baby he had met just yesterday. He stuck his pen in the ink jar on his desk and scribbled a batch of lyrics onto a crumpled piece of paper. 

The lyric read: 


My Yuletide Lullaby

Tonight I hold you in my arms

Soft and tender

I try to keep you from all harm

Love you forever


You are my son

You are a savior

You are my love

You are baby


So I sing this cradle song

So I guard you all night long

I soothe you as you cry

With my yuletide lullaby

My yuletide lullaby


You are not mine, it’s understood

Time has a purpose

I give you back to God for good

I must have courage


Sleep in peace

Peace be still

Sleep and dream

Dream God’s will

For the world


So I sing this cradle song

So I guard you all night long

I soothe you as you cry

With my yuletide lullaby

My yuletide lullaby


I bless you with my tears

My heart will not give way to fear


So I sing this cradle song

So I guard you all night long

I soothe you as you cry

With my yuletide lullaby

My yuletide lullaby


Considering that the new song needed music, Father Joseph ran off to his friend, a schoolteacher, Father Franz, in a nearby village church. Although Father Franz could play the organ, he could also play the guitar. 

“Can you finish my song before service tonight?” Father Joseph said, bursting through Father Franz’s front door. “Our organ broke, and I thought you could write something special for the guitar. I can’t do it myself.”

“Finish your song?” Father Franz said. “Even if I could finish it, who will play it at Mass tonight? I’d have to play for your service and then run right back to my service in the snow. I’m still writing my homily.”

“Mozart could figure out how to do it,” Father Joseph said. “Can’t you use a homily from last year?”

“I could use the end of a homily from two years ago,” Father Franz said. “No one will remember it anyhow.”

Franz took the crumpled piece of paper from Joseph and began to hum a melody while playing the guitar. As Father Joseph paced back and forth in Franz’s home, Franz finally finished the music to the lyric. 

“Oh, it’s gorgeous, Father Franz,” Father Joseph said with a tear in his eye. “My congregation will love it. The next time the mice eat the organ bellows in a flood, I’ll just know it is time to write another new song.”

At the midnight Mass, Father Joseph prays silently, worried that the congregation will reject the new hymn.

“What happened to the organ?” some of the people in the pews snapped. “It smells like mold in here.”

“Why couldn’t he clean up the mess with the organ before Christmas Eve service?” someone else judged.

“I would like to now perform a new Christmas hymn for everyone,” Father Joseph announced. “Sometimes, new songs come from the most unlikely places at the right time when we need them the most.”

In awe of the beautiful new hymn, two families of glovemakers sat in the front pews, filled with tears.

“It makes me think of our children when they were younger,” one of the glovemakers told another. “How thoughtful of Father Joseph and Father Franz to write a new song for Christmas,” the glovemakers whispered. 

In fact, Father Joseph and Father Franz performed the song with just enough time for Father Franz to return to his service to give his last-minute homily, which he cut short to perform “My Yuletide Lullaby.”

After giving enough money in church offerings to buy a brand-new organ for Father Joseph’s church, his congregants went home in the dark singing the new standard to themselves, remembering every word. 

“Could we please have a copy of the new hymn, Father Joseph?” the glovemaker said to the priest after service. “I would like to teach it to my children and friends. I could learn to play it on my own guitar.”

“My Yuletide Lullaby” was so loved at the Christmas Eve Mass in Salzburg that it spread to neighboring villages across Austria and eventually to singers who toured the world, performing for kings and queens. 

As legend has it, the song is only to be sung on Christmas Eve and not a minute too soon, offering a peaceful blessing in tumultuous times. Everyone needs a silent night, but most of all at Christmas. 

Copyright 2019 Jennifer Waters

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