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Silent Night a part of Willmar man's family tree
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Leo Gruber loves to play Christmas carols on his accordion. He especially loves Silent Night. Leo's great, great, great grandfather Franz Gruber wrote the music for the carol nearly 200 years ago. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
Silent Night is one of the most popular Christmas carols ever written. You're likely to hear it dozens of times during the holiday season, on the radio, while shopping, or at a Christmas concert. For one Willmar man, Silent Night has special meaning. He played the song for years before he discovered his family's connection to its music.

Willmar, Minn. — It's not hard to convince Leo Gruber to crank out a song. The 86-year-old former dairy farmer lives in a retirement community in Willmar with his wife Marge.

Leo has several accordions. He drags out an old stand-by and prepares to play his favorite Christmas song. Gruber plays Silent Night. His fingers slide across the accordion's keys with familiarity, he's played the song many times before.

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Image Leo Gruber

Gruber started playing accordion as a boy, nearly 80 years ago. He found his first instrument almost by mistake. It was broken, flung on a rock pile by a neighbor's farm.

"Then I carried it in the house and I said 'Can I carry this home?'. The neighbor said 'It's all busted up'. So I took it home, and my mom and me' we taped it up with old adhesive tape. I squeezed it around a little bit and I had music in myself," Gruber said.

Leo found he was musically inclined and taught himself to play by ear. When the folks at his school found out, they asked him to come and play Christmas music.

"They knew that I played a little bit, so I tried to play Silent Night. I got it out real nice and it sounded good," Gruber said.

Leo continued to play accordion at school, at family parties and dances for years. And every Christmas he played Silent Night over and over again. Then in the 1930s or 1940s, Gruber's not exactly sure when, his family traced their roots back to Austrian composer Franz Gruber.

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Image Leo plays a century-old accordion

As the story goes, Leo's great, great, great, grandfather, Franz Gruber, was approached by Joseph Moore on Christmas eve, 1818. Moore had written a poem and asked Gruber to write music to accompany the piece.

"Franz tried it on the organ but could really get it out because the organ was all chewed up by mice. So he took his guitar and got it out real good. It had a little tune it it. That's why 'Silent Night' is slower," Gruber said.

It turns out there's some disagreement in the musical world about when exactly Franz Gruber wrote the music for Silent Night. Some say it may have been years after the original poem was written, and not on Christmas Eve as the popular story goes.

That doesn't really matter to Leo Gruber. This year he'll play Silent Night on his accordion when his family gathers for a Christmas celebration. And in true Gruber spirit, other family members will join in.

"One of my boys, he plays the accordion too and he likes to play the guitar and sing. So it runs through the Gruber family and down to my grandkids, so I hope they'll keep it up,"

Leo Gruber suspects there's another reason why he's fond of the famous carol. His birthday is on Christmas, this year he turns 87.

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