I know the winter holidays have passed, but I want to share one of the things we did in December to replace our usual winter traditions and create the sense of hygge that I long for this time of year. We took a “Silent Night, Holy Night” tour from Salzburg to see the Silent Night Chapel.
Every December 24 at 5 pm the town of Oberndorf puts on a ceremony and festivities to celebrate the world’s most famous Christmas carol.
Silent Night, Holy Night
You know the silent night song, right? You are singing it in your head, aren’t you? Or maybe out loud. Silent Night has been translated into over 300 languages and is one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time.
We took a tour with Panorama Tours to see the Silent Night Church, where the song was first performed, and learn about the history of Silent Night, Holy Night (Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, in German).
Find Silent Night lyrics here. If you are looking for the words to Silent Night in the original German, check this site.
We took the city bus to Salzburg and lined up with hundreds of people to ride four huge tour buses to Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria and the Silent Night Chapel. There were a lot of people with the same Christmas Eve plan as us.
Franz Gruber School in Arnsdorf
Our first stop was at the school where Franz Xaver Gruber taught in Arnsdorf. He was the Silent Night composer. Gruber served as organist for the Oberndorf church from 1816-1829, while Joseph Mohr, whose poem became the lyrics, was assistant priest from 1817-1819.
We were met in Arnsdorf by Max Gehmacher, the foremost expert on Franz Gruber. He spoke about Gruber and the song while we sipped glüwein and kinderpunsch from the Christmas booth. Then we walked through the school and museum.
If you are in Salzburg, you can see the outside of the house Joseph Mohr lived in when he wrote the lyrics to Silent Night. It’s #9 Steingasse or Stone Alley.
Silent Night Story
If you aren’t familiar with the Silent Night origin story, Wikipedia sums it up nicely:
“The song was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818 at St Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf… A young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, had come to Oberndorf the year before. He had written the lyrics of the song “Stille Nacht” in 1816…
“The melody was composed by Franz Xaver Gruber, schoolmaster and organist in the nearby village of Arnsdorf, Before Christmas Eve, Mohr brought the words to Gruber and asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment for the Christmas Eve mass. Together they performed the new carol during the mass on the night of December 24.”
As the legend goes, the organ in the church was broken, which is why they needed a song for voice and guitar.
My favorite version is by John Denver and the Muppets. Not only do they sing in German and English, but he tells the origin of Silent Night.
Back on the buses, we drove a bit further to Oberndorf and the home of the Silent Night Chapel. It was a total madhouse, with tour bus after tour bus dropping tourists off to walk to the town square. And it was actually pretty fun celebrating Christmas Eve with all those people.
The original chapel flooded, so there is a new one atop a little hill. The boys and I got into line to go into the chapel. About 15 people could fit in there so we didn’t linger, but we did light a candle for polar bears and soak in the atmosphere.
There was a small Christmas Market, and we drank more glüwien and ate sweets. On a ridge above town, men in traditional garb shot guns. This is a thing that happens a lot around here between Christmas and New Years. I’m not really sure what the story is, but they dress up, line up, and shoot old black power guns, almost like a hand cannons. It’s very ceremonial.
We wandered back to the base of the chapel and listened to singing and talks about the song. This is when I fell in love with the song.
Meaning of Silent Night, Holy Night
We were told that the song is about peace. It was written during troubled times and expresses a great longing for peace and comfort. The fourth and fifth verses, which you don’t often hear, exemplify that:
Silent night! Holy night!
Where on this day all power
of fatherly love poured forth
And like a brother lovingly embraced
Jesus the peoples of the world,
Jesus the peoples of the world.
Silent Night! Holy Night!
Sleeps the world in peace tonight.
God sends his Son to earth below
A Child from whom all blessings flow
Jesus, embraces mankind.
Jesus, embraces mankind.
During WWI, the soldiers stopped fighting on Christmas 1914, played together, and sang the song. During WWII, the Austrian Ambassador brought the song to Roosevelt when campaigning for Austrian independence. And, the speaker said, we need the sentiment of Silent Night, Holy Night, and of peace, now more than ever.
Despite the touristy-ness of the tour, I really loved it. I will always remember Christmas Eve at the Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf, Austria, gathering with others to celebrate peace and Christmas.
Other Things to Do in Oberndorf
We stuck to the Oberndorf Christmas Market and the chapel, but there is also a Silent Night Museum, Silent Night Café, and Silent Night Gift Shop. Despite all that, it’s still a very cute town.
You don’t have to go to the ceremonial event on December 24 to see the Silent Night Memorial Chapel, you can go any time. And if you like rolling hills, big mountains, trails, and hay fields, you’ll find lots of things to do in Oberndorf.
Getting to the Silent Night Chapel
Take a Tour
I’m not normally a huge fan of tours, but if you want to get to the Silent Night Chapel easily, and learn about its history along the way, this is a great way to do it. You are going to be celebrating with thousands of people regardless, so you might as well have a comfortable ride. We went with Panorama Tours and there are other Salzburg tours.
The 21-kilometer drive takes about 35 minutes from Salzburg. Parking in Oberndorf will be tough so get there early or plan to walk a bit.
Take the Train
There is a train that runs from Salzburg HBF to Laufen in Oberbayern and from there you can walk the last two kilometers. Just follow all the other tourists to find the Oberndorf town square. Depending on which train you choose, it’s a 42-75 minute ride.
Thanks to Panorama Tours for my ticket (we paid for the rest of the family). The opinions expressed here at TravelingMel are always my own.
42 thoughts on “Silent Night Chapel — Stille Nacht Kapelle”
Okay I totally had this song stuck in my head the second I read the title of your blog post! This is probably one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time, I’m so glad you shared this amazing post about the story and meaning behind it! Such an amazing history to go with a song that leaves you feeling peaceful and merry!
Sorry about getting the song in your head! Learning the history of the song and going to its birthplace gave me a whole new appreciation for the carol.
I loved learning the history behind the song. And, of course, I always loved John Denver. May he rest in peace.
John Denver is pretty great!
Loved this best of all I think. Love the song and it does make it more special with the history too.
We are enjoying Big Hammy here at Elkhorn—it is so special to have him here and he is teasing everyone all the time and they all love it!
Thanks so much for the blog! Loving every moment!
Glad you are having fun with Big H! We are hoping to get him out here soon.
I loved that you shared the history behind the song! I would probably take a tour, I feel like you always learn so much more with them.
The tour was great. Knowing more about the song made all the difference in the world. And every December when I hear it, I will think back to this night.
Thanks for sharing! Austria was an excellent choice for Christmas. I would love to see some video of your time in Salzburg. We miss you guys back at home and are so happy to witness your adventure. Have fun!
I couldn’t be happier that we picked Bavaria and Salzburg for Christmas. It’s so lovely here! I believe there will be Salzburg videos forthcoming. We miss you, too! Love seeing the photos of those boys getting bigger and bigger.
I was going to search YouTube for Silent Night, but then I scrolled down and you’d done it for me! I had the pleasure of listening to the song whilst reading the rest of the post, genius! I didn’t know the Muppet’s could speak German!
I had no idea about this history, I will go to Salzburg at some point and I’ll take a tour!
Those muppets are pretty worldly! 🙂 Glad you listened to the song while reading it — it’s almost like being there.
I had never even thought to check out where Christmas classics like Silent Night were created! I love learning about music history, and I would LOVE to visit Oberndorf around the holidays. Thanks for bringing my attention to it! (Also it would be great to check out nearby Christmas markets, as I hear this part of Europe does them exceptionally well!)
Learning about the history really does make it more interesting, doesn’t it. We also love the Christmas Markets. We went to the ones in Zagreb and Salzburg, as well as a handful in small towns.
I had no idea about the history behind Silent Night!! Great to learn that and if I go to Salzburg then I am going to do this tour. Looks great despite the buses full of tourists 🙂
Getting over all the other people took a few minutes, but once we embraced it and thought of it as community, we really had a great time.
Happy you’ve found your way to Europe! Salzburg Is a real quaint and cosy town – very picturesque especially in the winter months. Thanks for sharing the back story on Silent Night – this was completely new to me. I agree with Deni about, Christmas markets in Europe are well worth a visit! Enjoy your time here!
Yes- we are loving Europe. We went to the Christmas markets in Zagreb and Salzburg, as well as a handful in small towns, and really loved them!
This seems like something I’d love to do! I grew up singing “Silent Night” in English and German during the holidays at school, so it’s nice to learn a little of the history behind it. Loved getting to hear about the soldiers singing together, what a sweet moment.
I wish we had learned the German version so we could have joined in the singing.
I would’ve never thought the history behind a Christmas carol would have such meaning! I would love to one day spend the holiday season in Germany and Austria. It just seems like the most festive place to be!
I had never even thought about the background of the song…except for the John Denver version :). Now it is one of my favorites.
Actually we were not aware of the song in particular. What we knew was about a Christmas song that was sung during WWI. We got to learn more about the song and history behind it. Thanks 🙂
Glad to spread the word!
Isnt it a nice tradition that stands behind this? I simply love this time of the year, since in Germany (where I lived til mid of last year) this is really the Silent Night and Cozy time feeling with the Christmas Markets and Glühwein. Austria is pretty much similar with this. But this chapel I did not know yet, seems to be a place to visit, especially during the Christmas time.And the region around Salzburg is anyway very beautiful in my opinion.
We have loved being in Bavaria and Austria over the holidays! I agree, it feels so cozy and Christmassy. I want to come back next year!
Such a unique, family oriented, and traditional excursion perfect for the time of the year. It’s nice to see that the trip isn’t just about going to the chapel but also gives the visitors other glimpses into the region. The photographs look lovely by the way considering I can never get night shots perfectly. Beautiful.
It did lend a bit of tradition to our holiday, which was exactly what we were looking for in coming to Bavaria and Austria. Night shots are tough! Some of those photos my husband took on his fancy camera, but a couple are from my phone. I just hold it really still.
I had never thought about the origins of the Silent Night song before. I would never have guessed that it was first performed in Austria. It looks cold but beautiful.
It was a little chilly, but the hot drinks helped with that!
I had no idea Silent Night was originally written in German and then translated to 300 languages – that’s impressive! Visiting the chapel on Christmas Eve must certainly stir up emotions of gratitude and serenity. Happy New Year!
It really did move me and I was not anticipating that.
Such a wonderful way of celebrating your holiday. I didn’t know about this Chapel. But when I happen to visit this part of the world, I will like to visit here
It’s a beautiful spot!
I didn’t know the origins of the song. Silent Night Chapel looks like a lovely place to go. So interesting with the history behind it about the war. Thank you for the additional things to do in the area. If I am in the area I would be sure to visit.
Hope you make it there! And Salzburg is a great place to base out of.
This chapel looks amazing. It is nice to know a bit of history from places like this. I would love to see this myself someday!
I’d like to go back on another day and really check it out. And the scenery around their is worth exploring, even without the chapel.
Definitely sang the song in my head the entire time. When I saw the 4th and 5th verses, I was like “what?!” Haven’t heard them before. Also didn’t realise there was a specific chapel that held significance to the song. Thanks for sharing!
Those verses were new to me, too. I guess the song would go on to long if we sang it all 🙂
I had no idea there was such an intrinsic history behind Silent Night! I totally had the melody going through my head as I read the post. This must have been such an interesting experience to have.
It was really interesting! A little background gives you a whole different experience.