When I relocated from South Devon in the UK to Bad Sankt Leonhard in the Carinthian region of Austria in 2015 one of the things I was looking forward to most of all was Christmas in the snow-filled home of the most famous Christmas Carol in the world, Silent Night. And now, after five years of living here I know that Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht is not just a Christmas carol, it carries with it the soul of Austria. Josef Mohr’s gentle lyrics and Franz Gruber’s beautiful melody, first performed on Christmas Eve, 1818 in Obendorf, near Salzburg, holds centre stage and is bound up in the very fabric of Christmas here.
Unlike Christmas in the UK, Christmas is celebrated on the 24th of December in Austria - and it is a very special day. We too have begun to take part in the same traditions, and we also celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. Normally our family come from England to be with us and, much to their alarm, we fast in the morning and spend the time preparing food. Our Austrian "family" visit from nearby, and we eat dainty sandwiches with a glass of Prosecco and try not to gorge on sweet homemade Christmas biscuits. As we did in Britain, we arrange our presents under the Christmas tree - which is lit up with tiny, real candles glowing brightly. Some of the gifts are very simple - oranges, apples and cinnamon-laced Lebkuchen. The presents, however, are not brought by Santa Claus but by the “Christkindl Angel.” As the day turns to night in the late afternoon, the Angel arrives after the tinkling of a bell, awaiting the arrival of her invisible spirit is a moment of intense suspense. To accompany her arrival, it is customary to sing Silent Night. Singing this simple carol in unison - even if it sounds a little out of tune - is such a moving moment, and I always have to fight to hold back the tears.
Last Christmas, finding ourselves alone on Christmas Eve, we altered our routine a little and went in search of snow. Driving up to beyond 1300 metres, we found a small village perched on a steep incline called Sankt Wolfgang in nearby Styria. Almost unbelievably, as we arrived, the snow began to fall steadily, and ahead of us, we saw the most beautiful little parish church, painted pink outside with a small onion dome atop the slate grey roof. We crept inside and were overawed to see such a tiny church so opulently and beautifully furnished inside.
A woman glowing with health and vitality, with a shock of beautiful white hair, was quietly decorating the altar ready for Midnight Mass, smiling broadly she beckoned for us to enter and we stepped into the warmth of the church - it was such a welcoming act. Suddenly, someone unseen by us began to play Silent Night on the organ. We sat in one of the tiny pews; it all felt just a little bit magical. Music unites us in ways that are beyond language and location.
On Christmas Day morning I was free to go for a long walk and still have time to return home in time for our 25th December English Christmas Dinner. We even found a tin of Quality Street and ate them as we listened to the angelic voices of the choirboys of King's College, Cambridge singing Silent Night.