The Song from Oberndorf


By Mary Mikkelsen



     It was a beautiful October day, the leaves had turned. In all their glory and everywhere you looked was a picture post card. Louis and I were driving in a rented car from Vienna to Salzburg, Austria and as I studied the map, I found that with lust a short detour we could leave the Autobahn and drive to the German village of Oberndorf. This was where, as I remembered, Franz Gruber and Josef Mohr had written the words and music to Silent Night. As 1 think back, this short journey off the beaten path is one of our fondest memories.

    Oberndorf is a small village of no more that 2 to 300 population. The old stone houses with red tile roofs and geranium cascading down from the second story wooden balconies were built on narrow winding streets which led to the town square. Tall trees showered colorful leaves on the park benches, and a small sign showed the way to Stille Nacht Chapel. We had arrived just after noon and the streets and square were empty. As is the custom in Austria and Germany (except in the larger cities) the big meal of the day is served at noon and we caught whiffs of food cooking as we passed the open windows. The shops were closed and the streets would be deserted until mid-afternoon.

     Louis and I were the only ones around as we walked the leafy path to the chapel. The chapel la built on the site of St. Nicholas church which was destroyed in the flooding of the Salzach River many years ago. It was in the St. Nicholas Church of Oberndorf, Christmas Eve 1818 that Silent Night was first sung.

      As we go back in our imagination to that winter evening so long ago we see that a soft snow has fallen that day and now a bright moon casts a Christmas spell on the scene of the village by the river. In the simple cottages with the gabled roofs the light of oil lamps shines from behind the curtained windows. Inside the clocks tick noisily as their lead weights sink slowly to the floor. The men of Oberndorf have had a hard year's work. They had shipped huge quantities of salt from Hallein down the Salzach out into the world as far as Lenz and Vienna.

     But this is Christmas Eve. The lights of the lamps shine on slumbering faces of the village children. They lie between fresh clean bed-clothes, for it is a tradition for every mother to bring her children to a freshly changed bed on Christmas Eve. To show them that the Christ Child has been there already, she shows them a crumpled place where he has lain. They are convinced of the truth of their mother's words because everything smells so heavenly sweet.

     The adults talk of Christmases past and of friends and relatives separated from them. There is no exchange of gifts. This custom has not yet been started, but they enjoy apples, nuts and dried fruit, as they talk about how peace has finally returned to their world. Napoleon is confined at St. Helena. It was only a few years ago that his army had crossed the Salzach one dull December day and was billeted in the homes and huts of Oberndorf. They did not behave any better or any worse than soldiers generally do. There was plenty of fear arid that had been a sad Christmas. Those days had passed. It was a hard blow, however, when in 1816 King Max Josef of Bavaria and Emperor Franz Josef of Austria had agreed that a section of Germany be returned to Austria with the exception of the area on their side of the Salzach. Many tears had been shed as friends and relatives were separated by the border.

     But this is Christmas Eve 1818 and the villagers step out into the moon lit snow when the bells of St. Nicholas call them to mid-night mass. They have already heard that day that the organ is out of order. It had become weak and tired of old age and some one said that mice had gnawed on the bellows. They have also heard, as news travels fast in a small village, that Josef Mohr, the vicar at St. Nicholas and Franz Gruber, teacher and organist have written a song for two voices and the choir and are going to accompany it with a guitar.

    And so on that night as the congregation knelt in the pews, Silent Night, Holy Night was first heard. These two rather ordinary men, one in no sense a great musician and the other surely no poet, were given the grace to compose this song of comfort to mankind.

     None who heard it were aware that night that this simple tune was a jewel to be cherished into the remotest future, that it would bring inspiration and innermost happiness where ever it would be heard. In the spring after that Christmas, Mauracher, the organ builder from Zillertal came to Oberndorf to repair the organ. He found the song among the music there and asked for a copy. He took it back with him to the Tyrol Valley of Austria. The brothers Strasser who were glove makers heard it and carried it with them to markets and fairs across Austria and Germany.

     Twenty-one years later the Rainer Sanger from the Tyrol sang Silent Night in Trinity Church in New York City. It goes straight to the heart of all who heard it and from then on it couldn't be stopped from encompassing the world. It is heard to announce to mankind the birth of the Savior. The disillusioned and somber world holds its breath for the duration of a heart beat each Christmas Eve as it looks up to the star which once guided the Wise Men.

     The song from Oberndorf brings delight and the heart ache of remembering Christmases past and lost loved ones. To many it is the last souvenir of a lost homeland as they sing it in their mother tongue. It has brought warmth and homesickness to soldiers far from home. There is no mother who is not delighted as her child sings this song in anticipation of Christmas.

     In the Silent Night Chapel is a large book where on page after page people from every nation have signed their names with a note of thanks to the song from Oberndorf for the joy it had brought them. Louis and I added our names to the book.

     As we left the sleepy town by a small wooden bridge over the Salzach and into Austria, the townsfolk had not yet stirred from their noon day rest. We felt we had been given a very special gift- for a brief capsule of time Oberndorf had belonged to us alone.

     We were brought back sharply to reality, however as we approached the border guard at the end of the bridge. He asked for our passports and then exclaimed, "Oklahoma! I vas dere!"  He had been a prisoner of war in a camp near Louis' home town.

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