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Austrian Christmas Stories

Find out how Silent Night was composed and why an Austrian town has a special Christmas Post Office.

Oberndorf Chapel © Österreich Werbung/Weinhaeupl

The Origin of Silent Night

As soon as the first chords of "Silent Night, Holy Night" fill a room, we know that the festive season is upon us. Since we were children we have associated this carol with crisp winter air and glowing log fires, tinsel-covered trees and stockings bursting with colourful presents. But did you know that the Silent Night tradition actually originated in Austria?

It was 24th December 1818 when Joseph Mohr, the assisting priest of St. Nicola Church in Oberndorf, came to the organist and teacher Franz Xaver Gruber with a poem. Mohr asked if Gruber could compose a hymn for a soprano, tenor and choir, accompanied by a guitar. With these words, Gruber began composing the world famous Silent Night carol.

The Lyrics
It is most likely that Mohr had already written the lyrics for Silent Night by 1816. Why this poem became a Christmas carol two years later is subject to speculation. Legend has it that St. Nicola's organ was not working that Christmas Eve in 1818. It was because of this that Mohr asked Gruber to compose music that did not require an organ to go with his lyrics.

From Salzburg to Tirol, Leipzig and New York
The Silent Night carol was later primarily performed in the area where both composers worked, without their names being mentioned. In 1866, the carol was first published in a songbook for churches in the SalzburgerLand region. Before that, the Rainer and Strasser families took the song to Zillertal in Tirol in 1819, Leipzig in 1832, and finally to New York in 1839.

Today
At the turn of the century Christian missionaries spread the carol to all continents across the globe. Today, the Silent Night Christmas carol exists in over 300 different languages and dialects. The Austrian town of Oberndorf remains one of the most unique places to visit at Christmas time, with the original Silent Night Chapel, the Silent Night Museum, as well as its very own Christmas Market.

For further information, please visit: www.stillenacht-oberndorf.at

 

Christkindl Pilgrimage Place and Christmas Post Office in Steyr

In 1695 the seriously ill tower watchman and bandmaster Ferdinand Sertl placed a small wax figure of the Christ Child into the hollow of a fir tree. Several times a week he returned to the place to pray. After he was miraculously cured of epilepsy, the spot attracted so many pilgrims that it became necessary to build a church

The Christkindl Pilgramage Place
Given the name "To the Christ Child below the heavens", the construction of the Christkindl pilgramage church was begun by Giovanni Battista Carlone in 1702. It was finished by Jakob Prandtauer between 1708 and 1725. The miracle-working wax figure is only a 10cm tall Christ Child holding a cross and a crown of thorns in its hands. It is now housed in a little reliquary on the high altar above the globe-shaped tabernacle.

The Christmas Post Office
For extra special Seasons Greetings you should have your cards stamped by the Christmas Post Office this year. The "A-4411 Christkindl" Post Office has been opening its doors for over 60 years now. When it first opened in 1950, the popular postmark was stamped on about 42000 letters and cards from all over the world. Nowadays, more than 2 million letters and cards are dispatched from the Christmas Post Office at the Hotel & Restaurant Christkindlwirt every festive season.

For further information, please visit: www.steyr.info
 

Austrian Christmas Traditions

Christmas celebrations begin as early as the end of November in Austria, with various longstanding traditions contributing to the aura of excitement. Take, for example, the St. Nicholas festivities ("Heilige Nikolaus") on 6th December. Accompanied by the devil-like figure Krampus, the saint asks children for a list of their good and bad deeds. Good children are given sweets, apples and nuts, whilst bad children can only hope that they don't go into the basket that Krampus carries on his back.

Another important Austrian Christmas tradition is the Advent calender. Its origins can be traced back to the 19th century, and the first self-made Advent calender is thought to date back to 1851. The Advent calender helps shorten the time until Christmas, starting on the 1st December. Each day, children (and adults) can open a door of the calender. Inside it they find chocolate or a small gift, and behind this there is often a picture with a motif from the Christmas story.