Still, quiet, snowy Christmases might be alien to people in many parts of the world and yet they have come to epitomise Christmas. Partly because of a Christmas tradition, which began in the Austrian region of Salzburg more than 200 years ago.
On Christmas Eve 1818, the priest in the small town of Oberndorf, Joseph Mohr, gave the first public airing of a carol he had written with his schoolteacher and organist friend, Franz Gruber. Penned to try to raise the spirits of his post-Napoleonic war-weary and impoverished congregation, the lyrics were simple yet hopeful: Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht – Silent Night, Holy Night.
Standing in from of the altar of St Nicholas Church on the banks of the Salzach River, the priest played guitar and with Gruber, who had composed the melody in just a few hours, sang what was to become a quintessential part of Christmas. His parishioners were drawn from the hardy barger community - men who transported salt, which brought wealth and renown to Salzburg, along the river.
Two travelling families of Tyrolean folk singers, the Rainers and the Strassers – not dissimilar to the fabled Von Trapp family – were responsible for the spread of the song. They included it in their shows, taking it as far afield as St Petersburg and New York. They also cut Mohr’s original six verses to the three we sing today.
Before long the song had gone viral but its humble origins were unknown. Many thought it was composed by Mozart, who was born in Salzburg city, or perhaps Haydn. In 1854 the Prussian Court Chapel in Berlin wrote to St Peter’s Abbey in Salzburg asking for clarification. This letter found its way to Gruber who wrote identifying himself and Mohr as its authors.
The original letter is lost but several early drafts are now housed in the Silent Night Museum in Hallein where Gruber was organist and choirmaster until his death in 1863.
It’s one of six Silent Night museums in Salzburg province where Christmas, and the song which has come to represent it, are big business. There is one in Oberndorf where it all began and neighbouring Arnsdorf, which sheds light on Gruber’s life. Born in 1787, one of six children of a linen weaver he should have followed this trade. But his mother recognised and secretly encouraged his musical talents. He ended up working as organist and teacher and his first wife, a widow 11 years older came with the accommodation when he took up his position in Arnsdorf. On her death, he married a former student 11 years younger and later someone the same age. He fathered 12 children and wrote more than 300 organ and choral compositions. Only Silent Night endured.
Another museum is in Mariapfarr where Mohr was assistant priest and first wrote his poem in 1816. A fifth is in his post-Oberndorf parish of Hintersee and the final museum is in the Alpine ski resort of Wagrain, where Mohr worked until his death in 1848.
His frequent moves were down to his relative unorthodoxy. A great champion of the poor, he was born out of wedlock and needed special dispensation to join the priesthood. Having done so, he was often at odds with the wealthy and gluttonous bishops.
In Salzburg, visitors trek to Steingasse where Mohr was born, and St Rupert’s Cathedral where he was christened in the same font as Mozart. Close to the famous Christkindle market, Silent Night is performed on its steps each Christmas Eve.
But the main stop on the Silent Night pilgrimage is the tiny chapel in Oberndorf, which in Advent is surrounded by one of Austria’s ubiquitous Christmas markets.
The original church and surrounding village flooded so often that in the 1890s the entire place was relocated upstream. By then, the carol’s international renown merited the construction of a memorial chapel on the original site. Completed in 1937, the simple whitewashed building stands in the centre of Stille Nacht Platz. Inside is a small altar and two stained glass windows depicting each of the men responsible for attracting up to 5000 visitors to Oberndorf on Christmas Eve.
Tradition in Austria remains that Silent Night is not performed until Christmas Eve. Whereas, throughout the rest of the world, it’s sung and played almost as soon as the decorations go up. The carol has been translated into about 150 languages and recorded by the likes of Bing Crosby, Simon and Garfunkel and Ed Sheeran. It was sung in the trenches during the spontaneous “Christmas Truce” in World War I. In 2011, UNESCO declared it an intangible cultural heritage.
While Gruber got wind of its growing popularity, Mohr was unaware that the carol would still resonate across the globe hundreds of years later: the appeal of sleeping in heavenly peace, as strong now as ever.
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Salzburgerland Tourism - salzburgerland.com