The Silent Night Memorial Chapel in Oberndorf, Austria. (Photo credit: Austrian National Tourist Office)
Legend has it that the world has a hungry mouse to thank for the creation of one of its most beloved and enduring Christmas carols.
“Silent Night! Holy Night!,” translated into over 300 languages and dialects, is marking its 200th anniversary on Christmas Eve. Austrians are celebrating the occasion with special concerts and events.
The popular song was born in 1818 in the village of Oberndorf, near Salzburg, a city better known as the birthplace of Mozart and “The Sound of Music.”
That year, on Christmas Eve, Joseph Mohr, assistant priest at the Church of St. Nicholas, discovered the church organ wasn’t working and had to come up with something for Midnight Mass. The story goes that a mouse had chewed through the organ’s bellows. (Though long ago disproven, it still makes for a good tale).
Mohr remembered a simple poem he’d written in German two years earlier. He dusted it off, raced to the home of the church organist, Franz Xaver Gruber, and asked him to compose music for the lyrics — fast. Gruber came through, composing the melody that very afternoon. It was an arrangement for two solo voices and a choir, accompanied by a guitar. “Silent Night! Holy Night!” debuted following Midnight Mass.
Over the years, the song — considered a symbol of hope, peace and solidarity — spread worldwide, spurred initially by two traveling Austrian folk-singing families similar to the latter-day Von Trapps. It was named to UNESCO’s “Intangible Cultural Heritage” list in 2011.
Bing Crosby’s version, dating to 1948, is among the best-selling singles of all-time. The song also has been performed by artists including Dolly Parton, Mary J. Blige, Michael Buble, Rod Stewart, Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli, Josh Grober, Diana Ross and dozens of others.
Today, visitors still flock to Oberndorf’s Silent Night Chapel, commemorating the site where locals sang the carol for the first time in 1818. Michigan’s own Wally Bronner, the late founder of Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, was so inspired by the song and its story that in 1992, with permission of Austria, he erected a replica of Oberndorf’s Silent Night Memorial Chapel on the grounds of his sprawling store near Saginaw. Bronner’s chapel is open daily for visitation and meditation. There is no charge for admission. (https://www.bronners.com/)
In Austria, “Silent Night! Holy Night!” tours in Salzburg take visitors to sites including Mohr’s birthplace, Salzburg Cathedral, the Benedictine Monastery of St. Peter and the present-day University of Salzburg, where Mohr’s grammar school was located. Each year on Dec. 24, the famous Salzburg Glockenspiel plays the “Silent Night! Holy Night!” melody at 7 a.m., 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. That night, during Christmas Eve mass, churchgoers sing the original version.
And every Christmas Eve at 5 p.m. (CET), the Oberndorf chapel memorial service is streamed live on http://stillenacht.info
For a rundown of Austria’s “Silent Night! Holy Night!” 200th anniversary events, check https://www.austria.info/us/magazine/silent-night-special-edition
For original and commemorative versions of the song, check http://www.stillenacht-salzburg.at/#cd-order