No song gets me in a prayerful mood as easily as Silent Night. Even though some Christmas carols have complex lyrics and unfamiliar stanzas, everyone remembers the words to Silent Night, probably because it’s among the first Christmas carols everyone learns as a child.
Its beautiful melody urges the singer to proceed slowly and reverentially. In fact, in World War I, during the Christmas Truce of 1914, both the English and German troops sang the song simultaneously, as it was one of the few carols that soldiers on both sides of the front line knew.
The humble song had humble beginnings almost 200 years ago.
The Silent Night Chapel (German: Stille Nacht Kapelle) is in the tiny, sleepy village of Oberndorf, Austria. It was here in 1816 where Father Josef Mohr composed the poem Silent Night and, on Christmas Eve 1818, the organist and choirmaster Franz Xaver Gruber created a melody we’ve all come to know and love. The first time the song was performed publicly was with guitar accompaniment. Father Mohr, a tenor, sang and played the guitar, while Gruber sang bass. The choir repeated the last two lines of each verse after the two men sang it.
The song was an immediate hit. The Austrians liked it so much that the song quickly entered the repertoire of the Tyrolian musician families Rainer and Strasser from the Ziller Valley. The choirs eventually toured throughout Europe and North America. The song has since been translated into 300 languages and dialects. The carol has been recorded by more than 300 artists, too, from Bing Crosby to Josh Groban.
A Christmas Eve Pilgrimage
Every year on Christmas Eve at 5pm, a memorial service in honor of the two men who created Silent Night takes place in front of the chapel. A few years back, I was in Udine in northern Italy visiting my family and taking a short respite from an extensive lecture and book-signing tour and, because of conflicting schedules, my family chose not to plan any gatherings until Christmas Day. I thought, “With God’s help, I might be able to make it to Oberndorf and back again to Udine before Christmas Mass.”
I quickly glanced at my travel maps, my guidebook and my Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable (you always know you’re dealing with a serious, experienced traveler when he or she hauls out that unwieldy monster.) Oberndorf was 200 miles immediately north of Udine, and I believed in my heart of hearts that I could make it. So I grabbed mein rucksack and made my way to the Udine train station, soon arriving in Silent Night’s birthplace.
Oberndorf bei Salzburg is a picturesque, postcard-perfect Tyrolean town. It’s nestled in the middle of some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. The Austrians are impossibly friendly, and everyone greets you with a warm smile — it’s like stepping into a snow-covered, Christmas fairy tale. It was all I could do to stop myself from breaking into the score from The Sound of Music.
The chapel is a tiny, Romanesque hexagonal building in the community of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, just outside the city. It looks like an enormous white thimble or the rounded turret atop a medieval castle. There isn’t a great deal of space for Mass, so most celebrations are held outside. The first time Silent Night was performed here, there couldn't have been a great number of people present to listen to it.
A magnificent Nativity frieze rests above the main altar; it is the focal point of the chapel.
One of the colorful stained-glass windows is dedicated to Father Mohr and depicts the song as being divinely inspired. The church is perpetually decorated for Christmas, with electric candles and holly branches, as would be expected. It’s a happy little chapel. The church’s real name is St. Nicolas (German: Nikolaus-Kirche). It’s both ironic and thoroughly appropriate that the chapel in which the most beautiful Christmas song ever written was created in a church dedicated to the real Santa Claus.
The Stille-Nacht-Gedächtniskapelle was built to replace the demolished original church, which was heavily damaged in the early 1900s due to flooding, and was consecrated on Aug. 15, 1937 (the day on which the Church celebrates the Assumption. Only, it wouldn’t be until 1950 that Pope Pius XII declared it dogma).
When I stepped into the plaza surrounding the church, I was overwhelmed by the number of people braving the Tyrolean cold. All had come to pay homage to the creators of Silent Night and to the Babe and his Virgin Mother. The moment the choir started up, the chill left us, replaced by the warmth of joyous Christian camaraderie and accompanying smiles. Happy little children jubilantly sang off-key, soliciting smiles from everyone within earshot. Their singing, hopefully, masked my own caterwauling.
For those few precious hours I stayed in Oberndorf, I was in heaven, among those singing one of the singularly most beautiful songs in human history.
I made it to my family’s home and Christmas Mass, with only minutes to spare. As I sang Silent Night at my family’s church, my mind wandered back to those beautiful hours I spent in Oberndorf.
Frohe Weihnachten! Buon Natale! Merry Christmas! May the great Light that has been given to us illuminate all of our hearts.
Angelo Stagnaro writes from New York.