ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- Butch Dallmann of Alexandria grew up hearing stories about his great-great-great-grandfather, an Austrian organist and choir master named Franz Gruber.
In the small Austrian village of Oberndorf in 1818, Gruber sat down with his guitar and strummed out a simple little melody to a German poem titled Stille Nacht, which has become known worldwide as the Christmas staple “Silent Night.”
As a child, Dallmann didn't realize the significance of the relation, but now he spends his free time researching, presenting and giving thanks for such a close connection to what he believes is the most wonderful Christmas carol ever written.
Following a legacy
Gruber and his 13 children came to the U.S. on two sailboats in 1839, Dallmann said. Without modern communication methods, they dispersed, unaware where each settled. Some went to Missouri, Nebraska and California. The location of the others is unknown.
One branch of the family, however, ended up in Minnesota, bringing with it a special Gruber, Dallmann's father's mother.
"My grandmother played the organ for 45 years. I remember them talking about Silent Night and the Gruber relation," Dallmann said. "Every Christmas before we opened up gifts, my grandmother would play Silent Night on the piano, and my dad would play his trumpet, and we'd all sing Silent Night. It's kind of a special memory."
In 2002, he and his wife, Nancy, got the chance to visit Austria and Oberndorf with a tour group, but it wasn't until they went a second time in 2004 that they gleaned the rewarding experience they were seeking.
They broke off from their tour group and traveled off the beaten path to Oberndorf, tucked alongside mountains in the Salto River valley.
"It's not a place where most tourists go," Dallmann said. "There's nothing else there."
The Dallmanns had the privilege of staying at the Silent Night guesthouse and toured the Silent Night Memorial Chapel, which was built on the site of St. Nicholas Church where Silent Night was first sung.
They collected photographs, memorabilia and memories as they explored the peaceful town.
"It is so beautiful there in the mountains," Dallmann said.
Just as it came time to say “auf wiedersehen” and the locals sent them off with hugs, they had one last memory to make in the chapel.
"The tour bus came, and they said, 'Butch, take your glasses off and stand up there by that picture [of Franz Gruber]," Dallmann said. "They said, 'You look just like him!'"
Continuing a tradition
St. Nicholas Church, where Silent Night was first performed, was badly damaged by flooding, so it was torn down in the early 20th century. During World War II, the Silent Night Memorial Chapel was erected with its door in the exact spot as the original.
Sunlight streams through the custom stained glass windows, one depicting Mohr and his pen, the other showing Gruber and his guitar.
Though the chapel only holds about 24 people, every year on Christmas Eve, 10,000 people travel to Oberndorf to sing Christmas carols around the chapel, Dallmann said. At the very end, a singer and guitarist lead the mass in singing Silent Night, staying true to the nature of its original composition.
"It's known worldwide, it's sung worldwide," Dallmann said. "I don't think Franz ever realized it would become so familiar."
The people of Oberndorf wanted Dallmann to return for Christmas in 2004, but the cost kept him from doing so. Though money continues to be a barrier, he hopes to return to Oberndorf on Christmas Eve for the 200th anniversary of Silent Night in 2018.
"I think it's the most wonderful Christmas carol ever written," Dallmann said. "It makes me feel closer to the Lord when I hear the song. It makes me feel so humble."
History of ‘Silent Night’
Butch Dallmann, a descendant of the Silent Night composer, spends a lot of time researching the history of the song and has presented his story to many people. He tells the story as follows:
On a quiet night in 1816, Joseph Mohr, the priest of St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, noticed how beautiful it was, so he walked along the mountainside and sat down overlooking the Salto River and the valley.
"He just felt that it was so peaceful and beautiful and the stars were shining so bright, so he got out his pen and pad. ... He started writing down what he saw and he entitled it Silent Night," Dallmann said.
In the spring of 1818, the Salto River flooded over its banks and damaged the church and ruined the organ. "There's a story about the mice eating the bellows out of the organ, but it's just folklore," Dallmann said.
Right before Christmas, Mohr needed a song to sing at Mass, so he took his poem to Franz Gruber, the organist and choir master of the church. Mohr asked if Gruber could put his poem to music. So Gruber started strumming and created the melody of Silent Night.
On Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1818, with Mohr singing and Gruber playing guitar, they performed Silent Night for the first time during Mass at St. Nicholas Church.
Sometime later, a church choir performed Silent Night for the Austrian emperor and the Russian tsar, which was responsible for the spread of its popularity.