The Christmas song “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”) may have put the town of Oberndorf, Austria, on the map, but it’s the chapel memorializing the beloved carol that is the town’s main attraction.
Best seen blanketed in snow, the small octagonal-shaped chapel, just 13 miles from Salzburg, is a tourist destination any time of year.
With a storied past, the song plays a key role in a small Alpine town, a brief ceasefire during World War I and a beloved local debut.
An often-shared legend says Father Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics because his parish organ was broken. He asked Francis Xavier Gruber, the parish organist and school master, to come up with the music to accompany it just hours before Christmas Eve midnight Mass at St. Nikola Church in 1818.
Actually, Father Mohr wrote it as a poem two years earlier. But the song, “Stille Nacht,” did make its debut Dec. 24 in 1818 at St. Nikola with Father Mohr on guitar playing Gruber’s melody and both men singing as the broken organ sat idle.
The Silent Night Chapel stands on the spot where St. Nikola Church stood before successive floods in the 1890s. That parish church was rebuilt a half-mile upstream and the abandoned chapel sat for years. A new chapel on the spot was completed in 1937.
Now translated into 300 languages, the song ranks among the most popular hymns. This year, Pushpay, an electronic giving platform, released results from last year’s survey of users, putting “Silent Night” as third favorite after “O Holy Night” and “O Come all Ye Faithful.”
On Christmas Eve in 1914, during World War I, the song prompted a cease-fire as French and British troops faced off against German troops in Flanders, Belgium. Both sides sang Christmas carols, but “Silent Night” was the only one they all knew. The soldiers met briefly to sing, play games and trade goods.