Oberndorf is located around 20 kilometres north of the city of Salzburg and has become well-known around the globe as the Silent Night municipality. Between 1817 and 1819, Joseph Mohr worked in the community of mariners as an assistant priest, which had been separated from Laufen on the Bavarian side only two years earlier. Franz Xaver Gruber, a teacher from Arnsdorf, earned an additional income in Oberndorf as an organist. The encounter between the two men led to a friendship which ultimately resulted in “Silent Night”. During the afternoon of 24 December 1818, the assistant priest Mohr passed a poem that he had composed in 1816 to the teacher Gruber, asking him to add a melody to it. On the evening of the very same day, the two men sang the song following the Christmas mass, with Mohr accompanying the performance on the guitar.
Contemplate at the Silent Night Chapel
Those coming to Oberndorf today quickly get a feel for the small town’s significance: In the Silent Night District with the Silent Night Museum and the Silent Night Chapel, everything revolves around the world-renowned Christmas song which was sung here for the very first time at the St. Nikola Church. The church was inaugurated following a reconstruction in 1798, but had to be sealed off in 1852 due to flood damages. After two catastrophic floods in 1897 and 1899, it had become impossible to save the church and demolition began in 1906. Between 1930 and 1936, the new Silent Night Chapel was erected in its place. The church furnishing of the former St. Nikola Church can still be found here. Take a seat in one of the seven bench rows and contemplate the song and its creators. From time to time, visitors might even feel the urge to start humming. And shortly after, the humming may just turn into collective singing.
The Salzach river and the shipping industry
A particular treat in Oberndorf is a walk to the nearby-located Salzachdamm, set up in 1920. From here, you will have an incredible view of the Bavarian neighbouring town of Laufen as well as of the Alpine foothills. The Salzach river — first a lifeline, then a border river — has shaped life in the mariner town of Laufen and its suburbs Oberndorf and Altach for centuries. The name of Laufen has been documented since the 6th century and included settlements on the right as well as on the left bank of the Salzach river: The first mention of transport by ship taking place on the river can be found in Laufen’s town chronicle from the year 825. During the heydey of the shipping industry here, Laufen was the second biggest town in Salzburg and functioned as a river port for the Prince-Bishop’s river-trade fleet. Here, salt was moved from smaller barges to bigger transport boats. Of particular importance to the town was the Laufener Salzachschleife, a bend in the river: The natural formation was the ideal spot to collect customs whilst, at the same time, the many barges could only properly navigate the bend with the help of guides. Guiding was reserved for the mariners of Oberndorf, bringing additional wealth into the town. The wealthier mariner lords were part of Laufen’s aristocracy and thus had approximately the same social standing as knightly nobility. The manors in Laufen’s medieval old town remain a testament to the town’s former prosperity.
Beginning in 1803, Salzburg’s salt monopoly was abolished and new shipping regulations followed in 1816. With the rise of the railway as a new mode of transportation in the first half of the 19th century, shipping on the Salzach river finally lost its significance.
Joseph Mohr and his time in Oberndorf
When Joseph Mohr began his position in Oberndorf in 1817, nothing was the way it used to be in the formerly thriving town by the Salzach river. The population was suffering from the effects of the war, as well as from hunger and poverty. On top of that, Joseph Mohr’s superior Georg Heinrich Nöstler appeared keen on making his life more difficult: The bitter old man pestered Mohr, accused him of “uselessness” and of singing “non-edifying songs”. He also claimed that the young assistant priest mingled too much with the people. That, on the other hand, may have been true: Whilst the grumpy Nöstler lived in Maria Bühel, Joseph Mohr resided at the barren sacristan house and ate at the nearby-located guesthouse, since he did not have a kitchen of his own. With Franz Xaver Gruber, on the other hand, he shared a bond of friendship which would last for a lifetime.
On the traces of “Silent Night” in Oberndorf:
- In the Silent Night district of Oberndorf, one will come across — in place of the St. Nikola Church, which was damaged by continuous flooding and thus demolished — the Silent Night Chapel. Since 1953, the Silent Night Commemoration has been taking place here regularly every Christmas Eve at 17:00, to which countless people from all over the world arrive to hear and sing “Silent Night”.
- The old vicarage next to the Silent Night Chapel houses the new Silent Night Museum Oberndorf. Here, the Silent Night song and its history are presented to visitors on two floors. The museum’s focus is on the time of the creation and dissemination of the Christmas song, as well as the environment in which it came to be. Unique memorabilia and interactive stations invite visitors to explore more. The museum’s court is dedicated to the philosopher and recipient of the Alternative Nobel Prize Leopold Kohr from Oberndorf.
- Another magnet for visitors during the Advent period is the “Silent Night Special Post Office”: From there, around 30,000 letters, furnished with a Christmas postage stamp and a special seal, are sent out into the whole world.
- The “Silent Night Historical Event” takes place in the first two weeks of the Advent in Oberndorf and Laufen. Following a historical introduction by the Silent Night Orchestra in Oberndorf, the event crosses the Salzachbrücke bridge to Laufen in Bavaria, where the historical event is performed with the ensemble of the Schiffertheater Laufen.
- Throughout the whole year, various “Silent Night” performances are on offer at the chapel and in the museum in Oberndorf, and many circular trails lead through the town.
- A particularly nice activity is a walk to the Maria Bühel Pilgrimage Church: Start at the former sacristan house with the Silent Night Museum and continue toward the Salzachdamm and then to the statue of Saint John of Nepomuk by the Baroque sculptor Josef Anton Pfaffinger. Saint Nepomuk gazes toward the new Europasteg bridge, which connects Oberndorf with Laufen. An old wooden bridge used to stand in its place and the old piers can still be seen in the Salzach river during low tide. Passing by the old mariner houses, the old riverside path leads to the neo-Roman Mariner’s Chapel with mounted high-water markings. The route continues past the Scout’s building to the Prems guesthouse. Here, the path branches to the right and leads several metres uphill onto a private path. Cross the field until the fork in the path. The field path continues left toward a blue house. Following the Zufahrtsstraße (Marienstraße), you make your way up to Maria Bühel. At first, you will only be able to make out the church spires, but shortly after you will see the Pilgrimage Church in all its glory. Its interior is particularly beautiful: The artists Josef Anton Pfaffinger (statues), Antonio Beduzzi (high altar with the iconic image) and the Laufen native Johann Michael Rottmayr (dome fresco, altar pieces) have contributed to it. Passing by the Larch Tree of Peace, the way back continues toward Laufen. Conquer a few staircases toward Saint Nepomuk and cross the Europasteg bridge into Laufen’s old town. From there, the tour concludes at the impressive Länderbrücke bridge made from extremely heavy iron, where the entire traffic between Laufen and Oberndorf has been taking place since the year 1903. The last kilometre into the Silent Night district follows the shore path on the left.