Never heard of Joseph Mohr, have you?
After all, children born out of wedlock – illegitimate, fatherless – can be expected to get it all wrong; especially when you consider how we view parental influences these days. Walk into any bookshop if you don’t believe me: the shelf with volumes on how-to for fathers is filled with current wisdom. Browsing through this will convince anybody that it is totally impossible for a boychild to achieve anything if the father isn’t involved in a big way. We’re big on dysfunctional families these days.
So, maybe that is why poor Joseph Mohr never did anything you would think is worthwhile remembering?
Sneak up to your mental almanac and reverse the date to 11 December 1792; and while you’re at it, quickly travel to Salzburg. Here you’ll find the seamstress Anna Shoiberin in labour, giving birth to a little boy. She had been the mistress of a musketeer who promptly deserted the army and his mistress when the evidence of her pregnancy became too obvious to ignore.
Forward a few months. It is time for the baptism – but there is a problem. In accordance with custom, the baby boy would have the right to his father’s name, but a sponsor had to be found to appear in church. The seamstress, it seems, had built up quite a bit of a reputation by that time. With this, her third illegitimate child, no one could be found to be associated with her, the boy or the baptism.
Enter now the nefarious character, Franz Joseph Wohlmuth – the town’s hangman who eventually took pity on the woman and the infant and consented to fulfil the role of sponsor. Problem solved? No way!
You see, hangmen weren’t really seen as pillars of society. After all, they kill people. The church frowned down on such people and barred them from attending services. Thus young Jospeh Mohr had a sponsor who had to appoint a substitute to attend the baptism on his behalf.
Of course, having a name didn’t solve the problems facing the little boy. He grew up in abject poverty while his mother sewed away quietly to sustain their simple life.
Back to the bookshop. For every shelf filled with advice for fathers, there are two for mothers. Chances are that Joseph Mohr didn’t attend any program to enhance his abilities. His mother worked all day; he didn’t socialise with the ‘right’ kids; Christmases were bleak affairs; birthday parties were non-existent and education was rudimentary. According to current knowledge, young Joseph should have been on the road to utter delinquency.
The only thing Joseph Mohr had going for him, was his sweet voice – he could sing. This brought him to the attention of one Johann Hiernle, the priest in charge of the Cathedral choir.
Quickly back to the present. Here you have a choirmaster-priest taking special interest in an unwanted child; eventually to the point of taking him into his house to become a type of foster-father, teach him music and educate the lad. Can you imagine the gossip?
Despite our misgivings, Joseph developed a fine tenor voice and learnt to play the violin and the organ. Then, once again with the help of the kind priest, he was enrolled in the Seminary of Salzburg, where illegitimate youths weren’t allowed.
Maybe not surprisingly, there were a few odd hiccups. Joseph (remember the lack of fatherly discipline?) often sneaked away from the austere atmosphere of the seminary to visit the local pub. He thought the songs were much livelier and the company more stimulating. Poor Father Hiernle had to come to his rescue every so often.
Despite this, on the 21st of August 1815, he was ordained as priest. He swapped the gay life of a student for the frock and now faced a lifetime of solemnly serving the Church.
There was another problem. Due to a chronic chest problem (asthma?) he didn’t have the stamina to conduct a full service. Joseph Mohr would always be an assistant priest – there was no way he could handle a congregation on his own. Joseph, one may be excused to assume, was destined for obscurity.
Yet, this was the man who penned the famous words for Silent Night. He created something we all associate with Christmas: in fact, Christmas without Silent Night is just about unthinkable.
The point of the story of Joseph Mohr is a simple one: being a single parent doesn’t necessarily mean your child is doomed to end up a loser. Those books with the well-meant advice may be of help and trying to give your child the best balanced childhood isn’t wrong… But…
There isn’t a thing called a “Normal Home”. It doesn’t exist. No matter how perfect a family seems to be: there are skeletons in all our cupboards. Go on: check it out for yourselves. Go and live in the Joneses house for a week. You’ll find cracks in the thin veneer of perfection. There are no perfect parents, no perfect children and no perfect homes.
The fact that Joseph Mohr was illegitimate, sickly and poor, didn’t prevent him from achieving something special with his life.
Maybe that’s the message of Christmas. Maybe this is the time of year when we must throw out the excuses, the guilt and the quest for normality – and celebrate our individually unique imperfections. It is, after all, these problems and difficulties that makes us all different – and the same.
So – how did Joseph Mohr get to the point of penning the words of the famous song? And what did a mouse have to do with it? Who wrote the music?
I’ll tell you next time.