This Christmas Eve it will be exactly 200 years since the world’s favourite Christmas carol was created. Silent Night is now the inspiration for a special exhibition in the museum of Salzburg (where its creators lived and where it was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818).
Joseph Mohr wrote his poem in 1816 as a plea for peace in a turbulent world. Most of us are unaware of the chaos of these years but the exhibition traces the historical circumstances behind the words. It was a time of upheaval when the Napoleonic Wars had bled Europe dry and territories changed hands repeatedly. Salzburg had been ruled by its own Prince-Archbishop for over 500 years until the French occupied the city in 1803. Then in 1806 it was conquered by Austria, then by France and then by Bavaria.
Salzburg became part of Austria again in 1816 but the turmoil left the city damaged and its people suffering hardship and poverty. Then things became even worse due to a volcanic eruption in faraway Indonesia that blocked out the sun in Europe creating the “Year without a Summer” – crops failed and there was one of the largest waves of emigration ever seen in Europe.
Who could be surprised at Joseph Mohr’s longing for peace? Mohr was an assistant priest who had grown up in Salzburg and had had a difficult childhood, born poor and illegitimate. However, he was a talented boy and caught the eye of the vicar of Salzburg Cathedral, Johann Hiernle, who sponsored him through his education and training. Mohr became the priest of the church at Oberndorf bei Salzburg and it was here he met Franz Xaver Gruber who played the organ there.
Gruber wrote the lullaby-style music to fit Mohr’s poem and the two men sang it together in their church for the first time on Christmas Eve 1818. It spread fast around the world – it is sung in over 300 languages and dialects – and became an icon of peace. It was sung on the Western Front on 24 December 1914 by thousands soldiers of different nations and 27 years later on the balcony of the White House by Churchill and Roosevelt in the midst of another war.
The exhibition traces all of this history and ends in a silent space for contemplation, fittingly enough for a UNESCO ‘intangible cultural heritage’.
This year will see many events around Salzburg celebrating the carol’s composition and Salzburg in winter is simply a magical place to go. This city is tiny – in a couple of hours, you’ll feel you already know it. There’s an extensive Christmas market from late November onwards where you can find Christmas decorations, crafts and toys, candles and incense and, of course, lots of food.
Top foodie gift from Salzburg is, obviously, a box of Mozart Balls! This is Mozart’s birthplace as well as Mohr’s (they were actually baptized in the same font) and the town is music central with a choice of concerts every night. There are, too, theatres for opera, ballet and plays – you can even go to a marionette version of The Magic Flute. Amazingly, for a place with 150,000 inhabitants, Salzburg hosts over 4,500 cultural events a year.
And it’s just so pretty. There’s Gothic medieval Salzburg and pastel-coloured Baroque Salzburg (they face each other across the river). Surrounded by mountains and forest, it’s an easy drive to the ski slopes, too. For a winter city break, this is a great place to come – especially if you’ve got a hankering for picturesque snowscapes.