Monday, July 23, 2018

Celebrate Silent Night This Christmas

To mark the 200th anniversary of the first performance of “Silent Night” on December 24, 1818, Salzburg and its neighboring Austrian communities are celebrating the song heard round the world. It’s true; “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” has been translated into 300 languages and dialects and still resonates with music lovers of all faiths.
The City of Salzburg, festive year round, gears up for the winter holidays.

How do you celebrate a song?

 Austria will celebrate Silent Night 200 between September 29, 2018 and February 3, 2019 so there’s plenty of time to appreciate the poetry, music and a silent night. In the city of Salzburg, already making noise at the holiday season for its ornate and festive Christmas markets, the Salzburg Museum will feature “Silent Night 200” all about the song’s myth, history and message of peace.

The city’s Felsenreitschule will present a musical version of the song’s creation story that begins its run November 24. With any luck, it could do for Salzburgland what “Sound of Music” – the blockbuster film made from a Broadway musical – did for Salzburg more than 50 years ago.

Salzburgland towns associate with the song’s composer and lyricist are celebrating the anniversary with special events and Advent Festivals. You can also catch a historical re-enactment of the Silent Night story to be done on the stage of Hochberg’s parish church.

Two towns are already set for the influx of Silent Night 200 tourists because of their long history: Oberndorf, the hometown of the priest who wrote the lyrics; and Arnsdorf, home of the musical composer.

The Creation Story of “Silent Night”

Silent Night Square with the Chapel in the background, Oberndorf

Researchers today think that the song’s message of hope had such immediate impact because in the 1700s, political and economic hard times had befallen Salzburg, then a prince-bishopric in the Holy Roman Empire.

At that time, Josef Mohr was the unconventional priest assigned to the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf. Whatever the inspiration, he decided that an old poem of his about the night of Jesus’ birth might cheer his congregation. He asked Franz Xaver Gruber of nearby Arnsdorf, the church organist, to set it to music so it could be performed Christmas Eve. The church organ was not working, so Mohr performed his song on guitar -- with Gruber singing along and the church’s chorus behind them.

Historians say this musical act was so radical for Catholic clergy during that era that many believe it could only have been performed outside the church’s walls, perhaps for local farmers. Thus, a legend began…

Oberndorf, Silent Night Museum and the Chapel

 A small chapel commemorating the two was built between 1924-1937 in Oberndorf, on the ruins of St. Nicholas Church.

Today, this picturesque Austrian village boasts a sophisticated little museum at Silente Nacht Platz that will be open daily during the 200th anniversary celebrations.

The museum building is thought to have housed clergy during the early 19th century. Inside, families can learn about mining salt and transporting it by barge on the rough Salzach River. Multimedia displays illustrate how the bend in the river that today separates Salzburgland from Bavaria, Germany, was challenging to navigate in Mohr’s era.

Visitors can put on headsets to hear the song in dozens of languages but must head upstairs to sing along! On the small second level, there’s a film re-enactment of how this song inspired brotherhood among soldiers on both sides during the siege of Stalingrad.

Another room illustrates the story of two singing families from the Tyrol region who took the still anonymous “Silent Night” on the road with them, including a performance at New York’s Trinity Church by the then-famous Rainer Family Singers in 1838.

From there, the song’s universal message of hope went viral and its fame grew so in Europe that in 1854, research done by the Cathedral at St. Peter’s in Salzburg revealed the identities of its creators, and the stories of Mohr and Gruber were shared with the world.

And yes, the museum’s last room has a karaoke booth where guests can select to voice renditions by everyone from Elvis to Bing Crosby, and the audio file will be emailed to you.
Options to try out "Silent Night" Karaoke at the museum in Oberndorf

Arnsdorf and the School

 Tiny Arnsdorf has a different appeal because its two-level schoolhouse (two grades at a time still share a classroom) was where composer Gruber himself was teacher.

Upstairs, thought to be where the poor musician lived with his wife and family, is a small museum of artifacts, including the original Circulare or lesson plan used to guide his instructional program. Other artifacts and some furnishings belong to his grandson, also a musician, who legitimized their claim to the song. Children will enjoy seeing the way a classroom of that era was set up.

Next door, the Maria im Mosel Church is more than 500 years old and under restoration. Inquire about hours the school is open to the public.

What’s Special at the Christmas Holidays

 The holiday season in Salzburgland is extra special, especially this year when thousands are expected to make the traditional 1.2-mile walk between the villages. The procession begins after the Christmas Eve mass at Maria im Mosel church in Arnsdorf. Visitors are invited to the simultaneous outdoor mass and, while carrying candles, can join the walk to the plaza in Oberndorf to sing the song outside the chapel.

The local Christmas Markets, open annually the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas Eve, have charming small-town versions throughout Salzburgland. Oberndorf’s Christkindlesmarkt features about 20 vendors selling crafts and lebkuchen, a traditional cinnamon biscuit. The local Tannenbaum evergreens are decorated with small lights and ornaments made of hay, lighting the festivities until silence descends.

Salzburg and its Christmas Market

The Dom St. Peter's, the Salzburg Cathedral, is the centerpiece of the winter Christmas Market.

Most families will base themselves in beautiful Salzburg, about a half-hour away by taxi, so don’t miss the famous Christkindlesmarkt. This ornately decorated and festive, outdoors market has taken place below the towering Hohensalzburg Fortress in the Old Town since the 15th century.

Salzburg’s market is unusual because many more typical handcrafts and artisan works are sold than food, though gluhwein, bratwurst and strudel are bestsellers that bring in the locals after a day’s work.

Visiting Salzburgland

 At other times of year, the best reason to visit Salzburg’s neighboring villages is to enjoy their authentic farm style, regional cuisine and alpine architecture.

The bicycle path that runs from Salzburg along the Salzach River (ask at your hotel about renting bikes) is flat, car-free and very scenic. In just 90 minutes, a fit bicyclist can be in Oberndorf to see the “Silent Night” museum and chapel. 

The Christmas Market in Salzburg's Old Town Square; Photo c. Visit Salzburg

Or, slow down and spend a quiet night at the closest gasthof, Hotel alt Oberndorf Bauern Brau, around the corner from the museum. They have 24 simple rooms (one to three beds in each) and a terrific homey restaurant that provide a serenity break from the holiday hustle-bustle of Salzburg.

Here is a roundup of more ideas of where to hear music and enjoy Salzburg with kids; for a holiday events calendar, please visit Salzburg Tourism.

This post and images contributed by Ron Bozman.


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