Every year – when the patrons at the bar get dewy-eyed while the radio oozes out Christmas at Sea, Jingle Bells and The Little Drummer Boy – somebody will ask Gertruida to tell them the story of Silent Night again. Boggel, an orphan who overcame so many obstacles to be successful in his own right, especially loves to hear how a humble priest crafted the song out of desperation. The other Rolbossers identify with different parts of the tale; like Vetfaan, who still marvels at the way the history of the song ties in with the Von Trapp family and The Sound of Music. He always says it’s a miracle – a remark that makes Oudoom smirk. The clergyman has to remind Vetfaan every year that the wonder of Christmas isn’t the song; but that the real miracle happened long before the words were penned down. Almost 2000 years before the song, in fact.
Every year, Gertruida (who knows everything) tells the little audience that they surely know the story by now, but always relents because they then tease her by saying she must have forgotten about Joseph Mohr. This forces the clever woman to sit down, take a deep breath, and prove them wrong.
Baby Joseph Mohr had the odds stacked up against him. There was absolutely no earthly reason why one would expect such an infant to change the world…but he did, in his own unique way. However, his mother must have despaired when she realised there would be one more mouth to feed in her little household. And she must have worried about his future.
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 is enough to convince anybody that it is totally impossible for a boychild to achieve anything in life if the father isn’t involved in a big way. The term “dysfunctional family” has become a booming industry over the past few decades.
You see, poor little Joseph Mohr never knew his father. He should have ended up as a criminal or a beggar, not so? At the very least, you’d think, a boy like that should become a seriously disturbed delinquent.
Just shows you how prejudiced we are about stereotypes. And how often we are proven wrong…
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 …involved…with a musketeer in a relationship of convenience. A kept woman of apparently few virtues, Anna had to do what she could to keep a roof over her family’s heads. However, as soon as the evidence of her pregnancy became too obvious to ignore, her soldier-lover promptly deserted her – and the army – leaving her pretty much destitute..
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 a nefarious and highly unlikely character, one Franz Joseph Wohlmuth – the town’s hangman. For whatever reason, the kind-hearted executioner took pity on the woman and the infant and consented to fulfil the role of sponsor. But, like so many incidents in Joseph’s life, this one wasn’t without a hitch, either.
You see, hangmen weren’t really seen as pillars of society. After all, they kill people. The church frowned down on such individuals and barred them from attending services. Thus young Joseph 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. Were there other men in her later life? We don’t know and prejudgemental speculation is not what the story is all about. Suffice to accept that Joseph was a poor and deprived little boy.
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 special program to help him adjust to his lot. 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. Toady, social workers and paediatric psychologists would label such a boy as the one most likely to fail miserably in life and suggest an array of measures to correct the situation.
But in those days Joseph and his mother had to fend for themselves, There was no quick-fix or an easy way out of their poverty. The road to ruin must have seemed unavoidable.
Except for one tiny little detail, Joseph might well have ended up on the trapdoor of his baptism sponsor. You see, 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.
Oh, the scandal and gossip such an arrangement would have caused today! Here you have a choirmaster-priest taking special interest in an unwanted young boy. And yes, the clergyman took the boy into his house to become a type of foster-father, teaching him music and educating the lad. Back then it must have been seen as a charitable act; but today we’ve become a vindictive and suspicious society. Such kindness would be tagged as inappropriate while we look for less than honourable intentions on Joseph’s benefactor’s part. .
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. Another miracle? Of course!
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.
Not so, for 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.Or the Smith’s. 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 miracle 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, in overcoming these problems and difficulties that we unite in the dream of a better life.
At this point, Gertruida will always pat Boggel on the shoulder while reminding him that all this talking makes her very thirsty indeed. While he opens a beer, she allows her audience to mull over the many questions arising at this point in the story: how did Joseph Mohr get to pen down the words of the famous song? Who wrote the music? And of course, there are the delicious little inserts of a hungry mouse, a cold winter and a broken organ waiting to be recounted.
With growing impatience, they’ll wait for her to finish her drink before going on.
(To be continued…)