Fluffy snowflakes fell softly to the ground while candlelight flickered through the open door of the Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf, Austria. Laughter and clinking glasses sounded faintly from the nearby Christmas market, as revelers wound down the evening’s merriment.
Sparkling strings of white lights beckoned, leading me from my nearby inn to the tiny chapel on the site where 200 years ago on Christmas Eve, “Silent Night! Holy Night!” was first performed.
Today, “Silent Night” is arguably the best-known Christmas carol in the world, translated into more than 300 languages around the globe. But on that Christmas Eve two centuries ago, it was a last-minute effort by the village priest to compensate for the flood-damaged organ in St. Nicholas Church.
Trying to come up with something special for that evening’s Mass, Joseph Mohr pulled out a poem he had written two years earlier in 1816 while he was an assistant priest in Mariapfarr. Mohr asked Franz Xaver Gruber, the church organist in Oberndorf and a teacher in nearby Arnsdorf, to compose a melody for the lyrics, to be played on the guitar.
That evening, Mohr played his guitar while he and Gruber sang the new song in front of the church’s Nativity scene at the end of the Mass.
“Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” The simple words of peace and hope must have resonated with the local villagers then just as they do now with people around the world.
From Village to World
The song might have remained a local tune, were it not for a series of events that helped it spread worldwide. Carl Mauracher, an organ builder from Fugen in the Zillertal Valley, found a copy of the song while repairing the organ in Oberndorf, and carried it home with him to the Tirol.
From there, it spread throughout Europe and to the United States through performances by two traveling Tyrolean family singing groups, the Rainer Singers and the Strasser Siblings.
The song came to the attention of the music council of St. Peter’s Abbey in Salzburg in 1854, and a search began for the origins of the tune. News of the search reached Gruber, who, in December 1854, wrote a document confirming the authorship of the song by himself and Mohr, a copy of which is on display in the Silent Night Museum in Hallein.
Mohr died in 1848 in Wagrain, without seeing his simple song become famous. Gruber, who passed away in 1863 in Hallein, lived long enough to experience the initial success of “Silent Night.”
Neither could have imagined that the song would be globally celebrated some 200 years later.
According to Sigrid Pichler with the Austrian Tourist Office, the first time “Silent Night” was performed in the United States was on Christmas Day in 1839 in front of the Hamilton Memorial (next to Trinity Church) in New York City by the Rainer Singers. An assistant minister at Trinity Church, named John Freeman Young, translated the song to its English version in 1859.
By the late 1800s, “Silent Night” was being performed on all continents except Antarctica thanks to the dissemination and translation of the song by Catholic and Protestant missionaries.
One of the most moving examples of the popularity of “Silent Night” came during the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 on the Western Front in Flanders during World War I, when German and British soldiers left their trenches, played soccer, shared cigarettes, and sang “Silent Night,” each in his own language.
In 1941, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sang “Silent Night” in the garden of the White House.
Numerous celebrities have covered “Silent Night,” including the classic version recorded by Bing Crosby in 1937. More than 18 full-length films have been made about “Silent Night,” including four horror movies and one romance in which Mohr saves a fallen woman.
In 2011, the song “Silent Night” was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
In Search of Silent Night
Following in the footsteps of “Silent Night” became measurably easier in recent years as the Austrian tourism industry geared up for the 200th-anniversary celebration. New museums, new hiking and driving trails, special tourism packages, a bevy of new books and plays, and other projects have propelled “Silent Night” tourism.
The song’s path leads through Salzburgerland, Upper Austria and the Tirol. Special exhibitions, museums, churches, chapels, memorials and theme trails throughout the “Silent Night” locations tell the story of the famous song and the lives and works of its creators, Mohr and Gruber.
Twenty-odd sites are identified as playing a role in the “Silent Night” saga, although some of them may only boast a commemorative plaque. Five of the key sites are Oberndorf, Hallein, Arnsdorf, Wagrain and Mariapfarr.
Oberndorf, on the Salzach River, is the birthplace of “Silent Night.” The original St. Nicholas Church, the site of the song’s first performance, was destroyed by flooding and rebuilt on higher ground about 500 yards away.
Today’s Silent Night Chapel, on the original site, was built between 1928 and 1937. More than 2 million visitors come each year to pay their respects to the tune and its originators.
The focus of the one-room chapel, with its arched ceiling and pink marble floor, is the carved Nativity scene above the altar. Stained-glass windows on either side depict Mohr and Gruber.
As my guide, Hermann Schneider, noted, American visitors could see a life-size replica of the chapel at Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, Mich., but instead they travel to this small village in Austria to experience the real thing.
“There has to be something truly special about ‘Silent Night’ that brings people from around the world to see and experience these original sites,” Schneider observed.
Alongside the chapel is the Silent Night Museum, which explains the story of how “Silent Night,” with its message of hope, was a balm to the soul of the poverty-stricken and war-ravaged barge community that made its living by transporting salt from nearby mines. It tells the tale of the dissemination of the song around the world. Artifacts include the original altarpiece from the St. Nicholas Church.
When we were there earlier this month, a Christmas market surrounded the chapel, offering Austrian-made souvenirs and handicrafts while serving up authentic Austrian gluhwein (hot mulled wine) and wurst (sausage) specialties.
Hallein is where Gruber spent his final years, working as choirmaster at the parish church. The organ he played has been totally restored and its pipes replaced, and in November, it was officially dedicated as the Gruber Organ.
When I visited the church this month, I was privileged to hear the organ being played during a practice session.
The home where Gruber lived for 28 years, and died, is across from the church, and was officially reopened in September as the Silent Night Museum Hallein. It contains several original music scores and documents by Gruber, as well as personal items such as a magnifying glass and case.
The guitar played by Mohr the first time “Silent Night” was performed in Oberndorf is also housed in this museum.
In the plaza between the church and home is Gruber’s Commemorative Grave. Several memorial plaques are on the wall of the house. The lower level of the building houses the city’s Celtic Museum.
Hallein is also home to extensive salt mines, once key to the region’s wealth. Today you can visit the mines on a tour that includes two fun slides, a boat ride on an underground lake, and historical displays. (www.salzwelten.at/en/hallein/)
Arnsdorf is where Gruber began his first teacher’s position in 1807. The Gruberschule is within the oldest primary school building in Austria that is still in use, and can only be visited when classes are not in session.
Wagrain was Mohr’s final posting and his resting place. Today it is a booming ski resort, but it was a simple mountain village when Mohr lived there. His grave is here, and the Silent Night Museum is housed in the baroque Pflegerschlossl mansion.
In Mariapfarr, where Mohr wrote the poem that became the song, the museum includes a reconstruction of Mohr’s old room.
Salzburg is the largest city in “Silent Night” land, and it is also playing a key role in the anniversary celebrations, which will continue through Feb. 3, 2019. The “Silent Night” exhibit in the Salzburg Museum explores the politicization of the song, including versions written by the Nazis. It is a thought-provoking and eye-opening exhibit.
Planning a Trip
For help in planning a tour of “Silent Night” sites, go to these websites, which offer detailed information about things to see and do, as well as the history of the song:
For general information about travel in Austria, visit www.austria.info.