Silent Night is the most famous of all Christmas carols, sung passionately worldwide in over 300 languages and dialects. But did you know that the origins and story of “Silent Night! Holy Night!” come from Austria?
It was on Christmas Eve in 1818 that the Silent Night song was first performed by Franz Xaver Gruber to the lyrics of a poem written by Joseph Mohr, in a tiny chapel in Oberndorf, around 20 kilometres from Salzburg city. Now, pockets of the world stand still every year on the very same evening and recite the same message.
A song whose meaning and belief in world peace, the transcending of all boundaries, hope and unity in ‘all is calm, all is bright’ made it to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2011, for its everlasting message. One that’s as pertinent today as it was during the troubled time in which it was written when the Napoleonic Wars wreaked devastation on Europe for over 20 years and a volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1815 created catastrophic climate changes that reached Europe, known as “the year without a summer”.
As part of a series of events and special exhibitions for the 200th anniversary of Silent Night (in German: Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht), you can trace the origins of this eternal song on a journey across three regions of Austria. From its inception to its first printing, to the singing families who carried it across Europe and beyond, you can journey through Upper Austria, SalzburgerLand and Tirol on the trail of all things Silent Night.
An Austrian advent ritual, with a centuries-long global effect.
- 1 The Story of Silent Night – Song Timeline in Brief
- 2 A Silent Night Itinerary – The Christmas Carol Heritage Path in Seven Days
- 3 Finding the Origins of Silent Night in Salzburg, SalzburgerLand
- 4 On the Trail of Silent Night in Upper Austria
- 5 The Story of Silent Night in Tirol
- 6 Silent Night Story Snapshot – The 200th Anniversary Journey:
The Story of Silent Night – Song Timeline in Brief
Before setting out to follow the story of Silent Night in Austria, it’s good to have a timeline of events and locations in mind in order to follow the song’s journey.
- SalzburgerLand. In 1816 a young assistant priest, Joseph Mohr wrote the text to Silent Night in the form of a poem, in Mariapfarr (in SalzburgerLand) where he was living at the time.
- SalzburgerLand. In 1818, just before Christmas, village schoolteacher and organist, Franz Xaver Gruber composed the melody for Silent Night at the School House in Arnsdorf.
- SalzburgerLand. Christmas Eve in 1818, Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber first performed the Silent Night song at the St Nicholas Parish Church in Oberndorf after mass. It is said that the organ in the church wasn’t working at the time and so the song was written for guitar accompaniment.
- Tirol. By 1819 the song had found its way to the Zillertal in Tirol through organ builder, Carl Mauracher from Fügen. He had repaired the Oberndorf church organ and liking the Silent Night song so much, he took it back home where it was performed on Christmas Eve in Fügen.
- Tirol. In 1819. The Rainer singing family added their song to their repertoire as singing traders, passing the song on to the Strasser Siblings in the Zillertal Valley, thus spreading the song from SalzburgerLand to Tyrol. Before people knew who wrote Silent Night, it was presumed to be a Tyrolean song!
- Upper Austria. Between 1827 and 1832 Joseph Greis published a pamphlet of songs, which included the full Silent Night text (the exact date is unknown). This was seen as the first official circulation of the song text.
- Europe, the US and the World. 1831 onwards. The Strasser Siblings sang Tyrolean songs in 1831 in Leipzig to boost sales at their market stall. One of those was Silent Night. The Strasser Family singers and the Rainer family toured Europe, with the Rainers taking the song to the US in 1839, which began with a performance in New York.
- Today, all around the world, the song is traditionally sung at the end of Christmas Eve service. Many of the communities in Salzburg, Upper Austria, Bavaria and Tyrol silence the organ and end the service by singing Silent night in its original German version “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” by candlelight.
A Silent Night Itinerary – The Christmas Carol Heritage Path in Seven Days
You can comfortably see the main sites that cover the core aspects of the Silent Night song’s history timeline in seven days. It would be easier, logistically, to start eastward in Upper Austria working westward through SalzburgerLand and to Tirol (or the other way around).
The following overview of Silent Night related destinations and highlights is in the chronological order of the song’s beginnings in SalzburgerLand to the journey it took with the Tyrolean singing families.
Finding the Origins of Silent Night in Salzburg, SalzburgerLand
Duration: 2-3 days
One of the beating hearts of advent activity is the well-known city of Salzburg where Christmas markets, shows, gorgeous city decor and themed museums get everyone in the Christmas mood. And with the wider region – known as SalzburgerLand – being at the very core of the Silent night song’s origins, it is certainly the very best, and the most traditional place to start.
Arnsdorf and Oberndorf
Seven locations form the roots of the song in this area alone, yet two of those mark the very beginnings of the famous Christmas music.
Visit the village of Arnsdorf where Silent Night was first composed. The schoolhouse where Franz Xaver Gruber taught and turned the poem into the melody we know today is a working school on the ground level, and a museum into his life and the song’s subsequent growth on the second floor. If you have the chance to talk with curator, Max Gurtner it’s a passionate insight into how this village has great pride in the roots of Silent Night as the most popular song of all time. Max even let me play on the church organ that Franz Xaver Gruber once played on, which was a special moment in my discovery of the story.
Less than five kilometres from Arnsdorf, visit the Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf village and the Silent Night Museum. While the original chapel of St. Nikola on Oberndorf bei Salzburg where Silent Night was first performed no longer stands, you can still feel the presence of how this song would have made such an emotional impact in a tiny space. While living in Arnsdorf, Franz Xaver Gruber took an additional job as organist at the St. Nikola Church, which is where he met Joseph Mohr.
Paintings and plaques commemorate Mohr and Gruber, and you’ll find drawings, photos and timeless posters from over the decades of this very famous chapel all over the region and in other museums related to Silent Night across Austria. Get there early and enjoy a moment of tranquillity, which this song represents.
Salzburg – Advent in the City
Salzburg city certainly pays homage to the Silent Night song in abundance, as the capital of the region. Not to mention it is a city that loves Christmas and everything associated with it, including this Christmas carol. Advent is very special here and lives up to its reputation of having a romantic atmosphere.
I took a guided ‘Silent Night’ Christmas tour with local expert Michaela Muhr at the Salzburger Christkindlmarkt on the Domplatz and Residenzplatz in the very heart of the city. Every Monday during the advent period local guides are offering tours to retrace the footsteps of Joseph Mohr, who was born in Salzburg, lived at Steingasse 31 and baptised in the same font as Mozart in the Salzburg Cathedral. Mohr’s musical education is further connected to the Cathedral and the Lyceum school. Learning about the history around you adds an extra layer to the Christmas Market scenery.
Over 100 traditional market stalls filled with ornaments and decorations, sweet treats, nativity figurines and the glorious smell of Glühwein and fruit Punsch lure you in under the trail of sparkling lights that represent the stars. All the while you surrounded by the glow of the Cathedral. Carol singers perform outside every evening, but you will not hear Silent Night until Christmas Eve, and only then, from within.
While there are Christmas markets to be found in Mirabell Square, Sterngarten, Hohensalzburg Fortress and Hellbrunn (if you want to tour them all), the Salzburger Christkindlmarkt has a special representation. Since 2014 the tree has been provided by one of the seven Silent Night towns. The tree this year is from Obernsdorf, the village of the Silent Night Chapel.
The Silent Night display in the Salzburg Museum called ‘Silent Night 200 – History. Message. Present’ further cement the song’s history, covering the six themes of the verses of the carol from the music origins to its political messages. The exhibition (open until February 2019) displays the two original document copies of the text from Mohr and Gruber.
Open all-year-round but with the most footfall during the festive period, the Christmas Museum Salzburg on Mozartplatz was a fascinating and incredibly well-curated collection of artefacts from 1840-1940. Everything from model toys of Krampus and the Christkind to jewellery, tree decorations and delicately designed nativity and advent cribs fill the room in floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets. You never know how many Christmas related objects existed in the world until this point, and how we express advent differently across the world.
I ended the day attending an evening performance of the new Musical, ‘My Silent Night’ at the Salzburger Felsenreitschule. With its debut on 24 November 2018, this new stage play is a comical and heartwarming mix of messages around the celebration of peace, unity and goodwill with a little Broadway touch. Told from eight different perspectives and set in Salzburg, this play touches upon some Austrian politics, but with an over-arching message that can relate to anywhere in the world. With English subtitles projected onto the back wall, this play is accessible to all visitors, and you might find yourself wiping a tear or two when Silent Night is performed at the very end to a grand orchestra.
READ MORE: Why You Should Visit Salzburg – The Musical Metropolis Beyond Mozart and The Sound of Music.
On the Trail of Silent Night in Upper Austria
Duration: 2 days
Steyr is the city that lies at the heart of the well-known Christkindl region, and a visit to Upper Austria means not only following the Silent Night trail further but indulging in all things advent and festive.
City of Steyr
The city of Steyr is picture-perfect with pastel-hued buildings lightly dusted with the first layers of snowfall. The extra layer of advent comes with the traditional Christmas market in the old town, where you can sip on locally brewed Glühwein while being mesmerised by the colourful and intricately detailed facades of the blending late-Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, some still with their original wooden triangular roofs.
Running through the market area is the main street of Grünmarkt and it is here that you can visit the former printing house of Joseph Greis who produced a songbook in 1928 that first documented Silent Night in written form, and which was multiplied and sold. The pamphlet, called ‘Four Beautiful New Christmas Carols’ is said to likely be the oldest printed version of the world-famous Christmas song. This wasn’t known as a site relating to Silent Night until 2016 when a pamphlet featuring the song was found at a Viennese antique store, which included its origin: “Steyr, printed and for sale at Joseph Greis”.
This demonstration print shop is housed in the original site, where you can print your very own copy of Silent Night on the original printing machine dating back to the 19th century. As a digital publisher, I’m still fascinated with the print press, and the earliest forms of machine printers like this are an art form. My guide, Wolfgang talked me through each process from inking the letters, lining up the paper, pressing with the right pressure and pulling the finished print off like a plaster to reveal my own stamped-in-history masterpiece.
Beginning in November 2018, the first Austrian Christmas Museum in Steyr will display a replica of the first text print of “Silent Night”. The first Austrian Christmas Museum and train are a must see during advent season and features over 14,000 antique Christmas decorations dating from 1830 to 1945 from Elfriede Kreuzberger’s collection, alongside 200 dolls. The train rides across three floors to what is known as the ‘Angel Workshop’ and is a themed train ride you will never forget.
You can hire dedicated guides to take you to the highlights of the region and give you a potted history of their hometown, and so I continued with Wolfgang to the tiny town of Christkindl. It’s so compact in that you can see everything in less than half a day, but for those looking to indulge in the trail of advent with more time, you can go on the marked Christkindl Pilgrimage Trail and hike to the neighbouring towns of Christkindl or Garsten from Steyr.
Highlights in Christkindl include a chance to look around the pilgrimage church of Christkindl – which gives the town its fame – where people flock to see the shrine where a healing miracle once occurred at a tree. A tiny wax baby Jesus marks it and the shrine still has part of the original tree in its structure.
In the neighbouring hotel, you’ll find the famous Christkindl Post Office where visitors will send over 2 million letters at advent. Choose themed postcards and envelopes, finish with a special Silent Night stamp and continue a tradition that started in the 1950s.
Austrians also adore their Christmas Cribs and most families have one in their home during advent, with Christkindl being the place to see the very best. The Christkindl region is known for its collection of mechanical nativity scenes and puppets and delicately carved wooden cribs. You can learn more about the history of this tradition at the local museum and see various working musical cribs in action.
While here, don’t miss your chance to experience another Austrian advent tradition – to meet the Christkind. The Christkind (Christ Child) is the traditional gift bearer on Christmas Eve and you can often meet the ‘real life’ one at a Christmas market.
Town of Ried im Innkreis
Ried is connected to Silent Night because the town’s Museum Innviertler Volkskundehaus houses the original crib that was in the Silent Night Chapel in Obernsdorf, SalzburgerLand when the song was very first performed. It is on display as part of the Christmas exhibition, finding its way to Ried after the Nativity scene was given away, stored and later sold following the demolition of the St. Nikola Church.
As a preserved part of the song’s heritage, the newly renovated crib takes up the length of the room with interactive light and a sound display system so you can learn more about how it was built and what each part represents, from the three wise men to a later-added typical wedding scene.
Ried town also has a treasure hunt style of Crib window displays, marked by the Silent Night 200 logo. The Silent Night Crib Walk is made up of 30 nativity scenes in shop windows and public spaces in the centre of Ried im Innkreis. The Krippenweg starts in Rainerstraße, passing through the squares and pretty streets of the city centre, and eventually ends at the original Silent Night Crib in the museum at Kirchenplatz.
In nearby Hochburg-Ach, visitors on the Silent Night trail can visit the birth house of Silent Night composer Franz Xaver Gruber. This is not the original house but is built to replica from the materials of a house that stood right next to it. The creaking wood adds to the timeless feels as you get to wander around a small exhibition of Gruber’s life, which includes his original organ.
It was here that I got to taste the special ‘Silent night beer’ – a light and tasty stout available in stores on site at the many Silent Night Museums alongside other memorabilia.
Also in Hochburg-Ach, you can walk the Franz Xaver Gruber Peace Trail in the village that is marked by a sculpture for every continent of the world. This was constructed not only to connect the village on a walking trail but also to promote the sense of unity and to discover the peace meaning of the song.
The Story of Silent Night in Tirol
Duration: 2 days
By the time you make it to Tirol (Tyrol), the Silent Night journey is all about the singing and how the song came to be taken from Austria and carried around Europe and beyond including its ling travel around North America.
Laimach, in the Zillertal Valley, is where you’ll find the Strasser-Häusl. You can take a short walk here from below the church in Hippach on a short connecting path that runs past a barn to the Ziller and follows the river on the left for 1.5 km before a marked path branches off to a small church and then brings you to the romantic Strasser-Häusl on the left. Alternatively, the valley makes for a scenic drive.
This heritage listed, beautiful, wooden Zillertal valley farmhouse stands out from the rest, lovingly restored by Mrs Rosi Kraft in 2000 and turned into a public museum. The birthplace of the Strasser siblings dates from the 18th century and is filled with original fixtures, fittings and décor, as it would have been, including tiny details such as traditional windows, antique door fittings and typical kitchen and living space set-ups. The museum contains original music sheets, pictures of the Strasser family and gloves from the time, as well as agricultural tools and other original exhibits.
It stands as a means of living history in testimony to the singing merchants from Zillertal, who realised that by singing, they attracted more customers at the market where they would sell local handicrafts, most notably the leather gloves. Silent Night was a part of their musical catalogue and from this means the song began to spread.
By 1831, the Strasser siblings sang Tyrolean songs in Leipzig to boost sales at their market stall, where Silent Night was first sung there at midnight mass I in the Pleisenburg Royal Saxon Court Chapel. A German publisher printed a book in 1833 in which this song was called “Folk song from Zillerthale” and so began the momentum of the song’s journey beyond the Tyrolean valleys.
Fügen is the home to the second famous musical merchant group – the Rainer family singers. So how did Silent Night get from its performance in SalzburgerLand to the valleys of Tirol?
Carl Mauracher – the organ builder and repairer from Fügen brought the song from Oberndorf (where the Silent Night Chapel is based) to Tirol. The Rainer singers took the song with them on their journeys, are also from Fügen and created the Tyrolean national style of singing we know so well today.
The first stop to learn about this timeline of history was Fügen Castle and the Museum at Widumspfiste for the “Klang der Alpen” exhibition, about the history of Tyrolean singers and the alpine music business. A large section is dedicated to the story of the Rainer family, who carried the Silent Night song to North America and Russia, alongside dedications to other singing families such as Strasser and Hauser who all started the journeys of concert tours.
From humorous four-line poems, sung by competing singers, and seen as the earliest collection of folk songs in Austria, to the traditional Tyrolean dance of the Tramplan, this interactive musical journey is where you can even practice Tyrolean dance moves and yodelling sounds.
Schloss Fügen also holds significance in the journey of Silent Night. In 1822, Count Dönhoff of Fügen asked the Rainer Siblings to sing at his residence (the castle) in front of the Kaiser of Austria and the Tsar of Russia.
From there the family got letters of recommendation and it opened the doors into other aristocratic circles and the chance for the song to spread wider. In 1827, the Rainer family travelled Hamburg to London and met with King George IV who had costumes tailored for them. It was here that Maria Strasser famously kissed the King causing quite the scandal of the time!
In Achensee, you can continue on the trail of the Rainer singers and their relationship with the Silent Night song.
The main site is the local museum Sixenhof on the banks of Lake Achensee. Since November, a new exhibition has been set up dedicated to the famous international singer Ludwig Rainer (son of Maria from the first generation of Rainer Singers).
The second generation of Rainer singers travelled America from 1839-1843 from Quebec down to New Orleans. Christmas Day 1839 is said to be where the song was first performed in New York at the Alexander Hamilton Memorial (in the Trinity Church cemetery, end of Wall Street). Ludwig Rainer performed with three friends, travelling and singing in a group known as The Rainer Family.
Travelling Europe and Russia until 1869, Ludwig Rainer returned home and later became an innkeeper in Tyrol, organising regular concerts at his Hotel Seehof in the village of Archenkirch, Achensee. The hotel no longer stands, but he is forever known not just as an entertainer, but a pioneer of Tirol tourism, whereby making it possible for singers to perform at home.
However, the Seehofkapelle (Seehof Chapel), which he had built next to the hotel, is still standing opposite the lake ship station.
Silent Night is the most popular Christmas Carol, one of the best-known songs and quite possibly the song that is the most well-travelled and dispersed throughout the world. While you can journey on a location trail across Austria for the 200th year anniversary of Silent Night, its message of peace is everlasting, and its meaning just as special today, as it ever was.
A message many people will be reverberating this Christmas Eve as it echoes from homes, churches and streets on every corner of the planet.
Silent Night Story Snapshot – The 200th Anniversary Journey:
- For further information, in-depth history and further stories on Silent Night locations visit the dedicated website set up for the 200th Anniversary. The Austria Tourism website lists a timetable of events across the three regions associated with the song that is updated each winter.
- If you want to visit Salzburg at Christmas and learn more about the Silent Night song, this website provides specific information about events and locations in the city and the wider SalzburgerLand region.
- More information on the city of Steyr during advent can be found here, with details of the Christkindl region and the Pilgrimage Trail readily at hand. For further details about travel in the region on Upper Austria, start here.
- For a list of things to do in the advent season in Tirol, related to the story of Silent Night and its dissemination, start here to plan your journey in the musical valleys.