The Story of Silent Night: Christmas in Austria

The Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf. Photo by Austrian Tourist Office.
The Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf. Photo by Austrian Tourist Office.

It was just a simple poem written by a village priest, but when the church organist composed a melody for it, “Silent Night” became a song that would touch the world. The priest, Josef Mohr, and church organist Franz Gruber wanted to give a song of hope to their small congregation in the village of Oberndorf bei Salzburg in Austria. The region had suffered through years of war and hardship, and life had been difficult. The duo’s simple song was first performed in Oberndorf on December 24, 1818, and soon took on a life of its own.

Traveling singers heard the carol and later performed it at trade fairs in Germany, and then brought it to the court of the King of Prussia, where the Royal Court’s Director of Music requested a copy of the song. Despite its humble beginnings, the song went on to become one of the best-known Christmas carols in the world.

Today, Christmas in Oberndorf and the surrounding region of Salzburg is still a time of wonder and magic. In a world where the holidays are threatened by commercialism, this small region of Austria still celebrates Christmas in many traditional ways.

Advent at the Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf. Photo by Austria Tourist Office
Advent at the Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf. Photo by Austria Tourist Office

Christmas in Oberndorf

On Christmas Eve in Oberndorf and many nearby communities, the lights in the churches are dimmed, leaving only candlelight. Then the congregation sings “Silent Night” in its original German version: “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht“. The sound of this memorable tune in such an inspirational setting is a moving experience.

Today, you can still visit the Silent Night Chapel and Museum, which stands in place of the former St. Nicholas Church where the song was first performed. The chapel is open daily from 8.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. year round.

During the holidays, you’ll find the chapel’s annual Christmas market just steps from where Silent Night was originally performed. The Silent Night chapel has meaning to many people around the world, and has become almost a pilgrimage site. You’ll hear all languages among the shoppers looking for handmade ornaments, sweet gingerbread and other delicacies.

The Christkindl Market in Salzburg's Cathedral Square. Photo by Salzburg Tourism
The Christkindl Market in Salzburg’s Cathedral Square. Photo by Salzburg Tourism

Salzburg at Christmas

The city of Salzburg is just a 30-minute drive from Oberndorf, making it an excellent base to explore the region at Christmastime. Best-known as the town in the film “Sound of Music,” Salzburg is utterly charming at Christmas, with its narrow cobble-stone streets lit up in sparkling lights and Christmas concerts performed throughout the city.

The traditional Christkindl market in Cathedral Square is a delight for the senses, with the smells of gingerbread and hot mulled wine wafting among the traditional stalls selling handmade ornaments and Christmas cookies. Local choirs and children’s school groups often perform carols throughout the evening, drawing visitors to the square with the sounds of their voices.

At Hellbrunn Palace, the castle facade is turned into a giant advent calendar.
At Hellbrunn Palace, the castle facade is turned into a giant advent calendar.

The Christmas market at Hellbrunn Palace is another popular favorite. In truth, Hellbrunn is more of a manor than a palace, but visitors delight in its amusing trick foundations and beautiful gardens. From November 17 – December 24, Hellbrunn transforms into a Christmas fairytale, with hundreds of conifers decorated with some 13,000 light balls and strings. The castle façade is transformed into an oversized advent calendar, and there are pony and train rides along with Christmas market stalls selling baked goods and hand-crafted works.

Advent cruises take visitors to the villages along Lake Wolfgangsee. Photo by Austria Tourist Office
Advent cruises take visitors to the villages along Lake Wolfgangsee. Photo by Austria Tourist Office

Advent Cruise on Lake Wolfgangsee

The small Austrian villages of St. Gilgen, Strobl and St. Wolfgang celebrate Christmas in a distinctive way. All three are connected by Lake Wolfgangsee, and at Christmastime, a ferry service carries visitors to Christmas markets at all three villages during the evening, cruising past giant floating lanterns, the lit Ox’s Cross and the Wedding Cross beneath the Falkenstein Wall.

Onboard you can keep warm with a mug of hot wine. From the lake, you can see the villages lit in their holiday finest, with views of St. Gilgen’s 11-meter high advent candle, Strobl’s six-meter high Christmas star and St. Wolfgang’s lantern of peace. Sometimes, you’ll even hear the echo of Christmas choirs or brass horns across the water.

The Christmas market in St. Gilgen, Austria. Photo by Austria Tourist Office
The Christmas market in St. Gilgen, Austria. Photo by Austria Tourist Office

Christmas in St. Gilgen

At Christmas, the streets of St. Gilgen are decorated with hundreds of Advent candles, with the 11-meter candle serving as the famous icon of the village. The Christmas market is painted in Baroque style, with painted figures of animals, angels and people. An illuminated path guides visitors along the Biblical story of Christ’s birth. The season in St. Gilgen includes concerts and Christmas plays. Many families come to enjoy the Mozart ice rink or to take the cable car up Zwölferhorn Mountain for an incredible view of the lake.

The nativity scene in Strobl, Austria. Photo by Austria Tourist Office
The nativity scene in Strobl, Austria. Photo by Austria Tourist Office

Christmas in Strobl

The idyllic town of Strobl turns into a nativity village at Christmas. The life-size nativity scene is a focal point, and a shepherd’s path guides visitors to a giant Advent gate and then along more than 30 wooden stalls selling cookies, sweetbreads and other pastries. Many also sell handicrafts and Christmas ornaments. Little ones like visiting the small flock of sheep on sight, and groups of musicians can often be heard singing carols. Log fires offer places to stop and warm up.

Snow-covered nativity in St. Wolfgang. Photo by Austria Tourist Office
Snow-covered nativity in St. Wolfgang. Photo by Austria Tourist Office

Christmas in St. Wolfgang

The first thing that most people see when nearing the village of St. Wolfgang by ferry is its huge, floating peace lantern. Large Advent gates lead to lantern-lit streets lined with Christmas trees. Christmas angels – usually local teenage girls – visit the Christmas market to add to the spirit, and small bands perform Christmas carols throughout the season.

The St. Wolfgang Christmas market is open from Monday to Friday, but Wednesdays are perhaps the most fun. Electric lights are turned off and all Christmas festivities are lit by candlelight, creating a magical atmosphere that is unforgettable. The shops and wooden stalls are lit by lantern, and you can watch local craftsmen creating their vintage works.

The Christmas market in the village of St. Wolfgang, Austria. Photo by Austria Tourist Office
The Christmas market in the village of St. Wolfgang, Austria. Photo by Austria Tourist Office

On Mondays, St. Wolfgang offers guided walks along the ancient pilgrim way over Falkenstein Rock, which is lit by torches and lanterns.

Christmas in Austria is refreshingly sweet, with an emphasis on the simple pleasures of being together with friends and family. Add to that Christmas markets filled with twinkling lights, baked sweets and the sound of Christmas carols and you have a holiday experience that is unforgettable.

If You Go to Austria

Lake Wolfgangsee Advent Cruises: Start your tour in St. Gilgen, which is a 45-minute drive from Salzburg. After time in St. Gilgen, you can board the ferry to visit Strobl and St. Wolfgang. Advent ferry cruises run from November 18th to December 18th, and then again from December 25th to January 1st.

More information: www.austria.info

Author Bio: Janna Graber has covered travel in more than 40 countries. She is the editor of three travel anthologies, including “A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel,” and is the managing editor of Go World Travel Magazine (www.goworldtravel.com).

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Janna Graber

Janna Graber is an award-winning American travel journalist and current editor of Go World Travel Magazine. Since moving to Austria at age 19 for college, she's been in love with world travel, and has covered destinations around the globe for more than 55 newspapers, magazines and websites. She's the author of three travel anthology books, including "A Pink Suitecase: 22 Tales of Women's Travel".
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