"Silent Night" - powerful message of heavenly peace  

by Bill Egan

    OBERNDORF, Austria --- Each year, on the afternoon of December 24, a passenger train pulled by a bright red
electric locomotive heads out of the train station in Salzburg, Austria for a half hour trip to the village of Oberndorf.  A
multitude of languages can be heard as passengers from all around the globe become Christmas pilgrims, heading
for the birthplace of the world's best loved Christmas carol "Silent Night."
    At the same time, the Oberndorf streets are crowded with cars bearing license plates from neighboring European
nations and filled with people who have raced along the autobahns to arrive in time for the special Christmas Eve
"Silent Night" twilight service.
    Throughout the world, "Silent Night" which has been translated into more than 250 languages, is an anchor for
Christmas celebrations. Its lullaby-like melody and simple message of heavenly peace can be heard from small town
street corners in mid-America to magnificent cathedrals in Europe and from outdoor candlelight concerts in Australia
to palm thatched huts in northern Peru.
    When the poet-priest Joseph Mohr, who wrote the words in 1816, and the musician Franz Gruber, who added the
melody on Dec. 24, 1818, created this carol, neither could have known the impact their composition
would have on the world. Legends from two world wars tell how "Silent Night" stopped the roar of the battlefield and
broke the back of hatred and killing while presenting a night of "heavenly peace."  Just this month (Dec. '97), Garth
Brooks released a new song "Belleau Wood" telling how two enemy soldiers stood up and greeted each other after
singing "Silent Night" from their respective trenches.
    Although the world may never know the exact circumstances and emotions that inspired Joseph Mohr to begin
writing "Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!" Austrian visitors can discover the places and traditions surrounding this carol.
    Special Christmas-Silent Night services are held at the church in the Alpine ski village of Wagrain, where Joseph
Mohr is buried, and the church in Hallein, the final resting place for Franz Gruber.  In Arnsdorf where Gruber lived when
he composed the music, there is a late afternoon service and then villagers and visitors walk in procession to nearby
Oberndorf for another service, carrying candles and lanterns to light the way. While walking through the cold
December twilight air, they sing traditional carols from their region as they travel the same path taken 179 years ago
when Joseph Mohr visited his friend Gruber to request a melody for his poem.
    The original church of St. Nicholas where "Silent Night" was first heard in 1818 was torn down in the early part of
this century after sustaining damage from the flooding of the nearby Salzach River. The Silent Night Chapel was
erected on the spot in front of the main altar where Gruber and Mohr stood with the choir to sing the six-stanza carol.
In another section of town, another church was built and the original pulpit and altars from the old church were moved
there. At Christmas Midnight Mass, singers stand in front of the same altars and recreate the moment when the song
heard 'round the world was first performed.
    There are "Silent Night" museums, memorials, and markers in Salzburg, Oberndorf, Arnsdorf,Hallein, Wagrain, and
a dozen more charming Alpine villages connected with Gruber and Mohr.
    The popularity of their song could almost be termed "miraculous." After all, the words were written by a modest
curate and the music composed by a musician hardly known outside the province where he resided. There was no
celebrity to sing at the world premiere and no mass-communication systems existed to spread the fame of "Silent
Night." However, its powerful message of heavenly peace has crossed all borders and language barriers, conquering
the hearts of Christmas-celebrating people everywhere. While Austrians consider it their own "national treasure," its
captivating words and exultant melody have been adapted and adopted throughout the world.
    Special guided trips can be arranged through Salzburg Panorama Tours and information to plan self-guided tours
can be obtained from the Austrian Tourist Office, P. O. Box 1142, New York, NY 10108-1142.

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