As Silent Night turns 200, Barbara Scully unwraps the story behind the Christmas carol in Austria.
Let me begin with a confession. I am not a huge fan of Christmas. Yeah, I know – shock, horror. But the truth is that I might be a bit of a Christmas
The relentless commercialism and pure hard work involved in making the season sufficiently festive dents the magic for me. However, I am a sucker for an old-fashioned Christmas carol, so when I heard that the Austrian city of Salzburg was celebrating the 200th birthday of Silent Night, I did get a little excited about visiting.
Salzburg is capital of Salzburgerland, one of the nine provinces of Austria and takes its name, (which means Salt Fortress), from the salt mines which provided ‘white gold’ for the province for centuries. Located on the edge of the Alps, Salzburg is a great destination all year around but it is in winter and especially in the run up to Christmas, that the city really comes into its own.
Salzburg is of course synonymous with music, its most famous son being Mozart who is celebrated annually during Mozart Week (late January) with a variety of concerts and performances. Salzburg is also the city of The Sound of Music. Much of the movie was filmed here, in various locations including the beautiful Mirabell Park. Although be warned, no matter how immune you might think you are to the charms of the 1965, award winning movie, a wander through this park, one of the films best known locations, may cause you to spontaneously burst into a rendition of Doe a Deer. The good news is that you are unlikely to be the only one singing while walking and doing all the cheesy actions.
This Christmas however, Salzburg is celebrating a particularly special musical heritage, because 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of the very first performance of Silent Night. The much-loved carol began as a poem, written in 1816 by a priest from Salzburg, Joseph Mohr. Two years later he asked his friend, musician and teacher Franz Xaver Gruber to put his words to music and their carol was first performed in a little church in the village of Oberndorf, about 20 kilometres from Salzburg, on Christmas Eve 1818. On that occasion it was sung by the two composers, along with the choir while Mohr played accompaniment on guitar.
The town of Hallein is about a 30-minute drive from Salzburg and is here that musician Franz Xaver Gruber spent his later life, as organist and choirmaster of the local church. Opposite the church, is the house that was formerly Grubers home and which is now home to a Silent Night Museum. President of the Silent Night Association, Michael Neureiter describes the message of the carol as three-fold. “Firstly, it describes the birth of Christ, secondly it is now part of the festival of Christmastime and thirdly it is a building material of peace, all over the world,” Michael tells us.
The area between the museum and the church used to be the graveyard, however all the graves have long since been removed. All except one. That of Franz Xaver Gruber which now lies alone. But on Christmas Eve every year at 5pm, the local choir sing Silent Night at his grave. There is a special reverence for the carol here and so you generally won’t hear it played or sung until Christmas Eve. In the city of Salzburg, the Salzburg Museum is currently running a special exhibition, “Silent Night - 200 Years of History, its Message and Presence” which provides a fascinating context to the carol. It describes how the music travelled from the little village of Oberndorf through Austria and Germany before crossing to the United States with musicians and missionaries. You will find details of some (pretty awful) movies that were inspired by the carol, including the rather scandalous Magdalene in 1988. But it is the message of peace and calm that still resonates through the world 200 years after Stille Nacht was composed. It has long been seen as a counterpoint to war, having apparently been sung on Western Front on Christmas Eve 1914. More recently it has been reinterpreted in a song dedicated to the mothers and children of the war in Syria.
The city of Salzburg has even commissioned a special musical for this anniversary year, called My Silent Night which was written by a team of Hollywood creatives including Oscar nominated music composer John Debney and writer Hannah Friedman. It plays through December at the Landestheatre.
Along with its Silent Night legacy, Salzburg also has the best Christmas markets. In true Austrian style, they are carefully ‘kitsch controlled’ (yes, I am proud of that phrase which is all my own). You will not find stall after stall selling the same merchandise here. Oh no, instead you will be tempted by the most beautiful Christmas decorations, many featuring native animals such as foxes, squirrels and owls. Not a polar bear or penguin in sight.
The main Christmas market is the Christkindl Market in the old town. The best time to visit is at dusk as the light drains from the day and the market is bathed in the soft glow of white Christmas lights which are strung overhead and the air is heavy with the aroma of gluwein and cinnamon. Visiting the markets is a very social activity as locals gather after work, to chat and just enjoy the atmosphere which is relaxed and very chilled, in every sense of that word.
Hellbrunn Palace, a few miles outside Salzburg, hosts another wonderful Christmas market and is a must visit if you have children. There is a special family area where children can toast marshmallows over an open fire, ride on a mini train and visit the petting farm, with its donkeys, sheep and goats. It’s all so charmingly cute, however, a word of warning. Although the Austrians are a classy nation who do Christmas in the most elegant fashion, their dark side comes to light in the form of Krampus.
Krampus is the evil counterpart to St Nicholas. Whereas St Nicholas (Santa Claus) is the kind man who brings gifts for children, Krampus is an evil looking, horned devil monster who apparently carries a bunch of twigs with which he may whack bold children around the legs. And in Hellbrunn at Christmas there is a whole display of various evil incarnations of Krampus to scare the hell out of your kids. Although some might think that’s no bad thing in the run up to the big day, it can be easily avoided if your kids are too young.
The old town of Salzburg with its baroque architecture is compact, very clean and very beautiful and is, unsurprisingly a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The narrow street of Getreidegasse, with its tall buildings and beautiful wrought iron signs is a treat to explore and a shopper’s dream. Off this street you will find a myriad of lanes, often leading into little courtyards revealing more beautiful retail opportunities. Salzburg is not the wildly expensive destination that people sometimes imagine it is. On the ground, prices are roughly comparable with Dublin, so make sure you bring capacity to transport your haul back home, even if you only buy some unique Christmas decorations.
When the exploring or the shopping starts to get a little tiring, there is a wonderful variety of coffee shops with mouth-watering pastries to revive your drooping spirits. I re-energised in Café Tomaselli, one of the city’s oldest cafes, where the coffee is good and best of all the waiting staff arrive with a glass case of cakes from which you can choose. It is very close to my idea of heaven.
Visiting Salzburg was something of a Christmas rehab for me. Nostalgic carols, gluwein, cold, crisp days, classy decorations wrapped up in an architecturally beautiful, spotlessly clean city snuggled down below high mountains made me feel, well very Christmassy.
But the rehabilitation actually started in Hallein where we learned that Placido Domingo had come to the church on Christmas Eve in 1974 and sang Silent Night for the locals. However, when we visited, a local singer, Martina Mathur arrived and treated us to a stunning rendition of the 200-year-old carol ‘as Gaeilge’ and suddenly I was no longer jealous of the congregation in 1974. My recovery was complete. Christmas, I think I love you. Thank you, Salzburg.
- Barbara travelled to Salzburg courtesy of the Salzburgerland Tourist Board.
- Aer Lingus operates up to two daily flights from Dublin to Munich, and from 22 December to 30 March will operate a weekly flight from Cork on Saturdays. Fares start from €39.99 one-way including taxes and charges.
- Aer Lingus operates a new service from Dublin to Salzburg starting on 22 December until 30 March. Fares start from €55.99 one-way including taxes and charges.
- For best deals visit aerlingus.com