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Europe: Christmas Traditions: One Night Near Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg, Austria, 27 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Nobody knows for sure the birthdate, or even the exact birth year, of Jesus of Nazareth, the wandering evangelist recognized by Christians as the Christ, the savior of humankind, the messiah promised in ancient Jewish scripture. Church leaders in the Fifth Century settled on December 25 as the day to celebrate the Christmas mass, Christmas. The date may have been chosen --as dates have been for other Christian holidays-- to supplant a pagan feast day. The Persians honored a sun god on that day. The Romans had a winter festival, Saturnalia, on December 21. Any more information than this about the Christmas date appears to be lost in antiquity.

But new evidence discovered recently in Salzburg, Austria, apparently ends reasonable doubt about the beginnings of the most popular Christmas carol ever written. That's "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" -- in English, "Silent Night, Holy Night." It has been performed hundreds of thousands of times all over the world since 1818. That's when it first was sung in St. Nicholas Church in the village of Oberndorf just outside Salzburg. It has been translated into at least 90 languages.

For many years, legend has had it that the author of the lyrics, Father Josef Mohr, St. Nicholas' priest, composed the words on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1818, to meet a church crisis. The organ was out of commission and the only sacred music he had was scored for that instrument.

Hurriedly, the story goes, Father Mohr wrote out the stanzas and took them to his friend, Franz Xaver Gruber, the newly appointed church organist. Gruber then immediately composed the sweetly haunting melody, scoring his music for guitar and voice. And then Gruber, singing bass and playing guitar, and Mohr, a fine tenor, gave the hymn its first performance at mass that evening.

The tale even has conflicting versions of why St. Nicholas' pipe organ went "kaput." One version holds that the organ had been damaged in a flood earlier the same year, another that a mouse had gotten into the works.

The Carolino Augusteum Museum in Salzburg recently has authenticated a "Silent Night" manuscript handwritten by Mohr, probably in 1820. It's the earliest known manuscript of the carol. The document bears the signature of Josef Mohr in the lower left hand corner with the date "1816," from which the museum experts infer that he wrote the lyrics two years before commonly supposed. In 1816, Mohr wasn't even assigned to the church in Oberndorf. He was curate of a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr, a village south of Salzburg.

The museum says that handwriting experts have determined that Mohr prepared this copy himself. Also written on the manuscript, in the upper right, is the legend, "Melody von Fr. Xav Gruber." This seems to lay to rest occasional revisionist suggestions that the music is from Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven, rather than Gruber.

Along with other Christmas legends like Father Christmas, the "jolly old elf" Saint Nicholas, and Santa Claus, the Silent Night tale may have survived more on its strengths as a good story than on its strict truth as history.

The birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem is described in Christian scripture. According to the story, the holy infant was visited soon after his birth by wise men from the East, who brought gifts. These accounts and a melange of pre-Christian customs appear to have spawned today's Christmas practices. Armenian and some other Eastern churches celebrate the main festival on January 6. The rest of Christendom recognizes that day, the Feast of Epiphany, as a secondary holiday.

Evergreen trees, wreathes and branches, symbolizing the continuation of life, are customary Christmas decorations. Gift giving, hearkening back to the wise men's gifts to baby Jesus, has in the last two centuries become a major part of the Christmas celebration.

Santa Claus, the name a contraction from St. Nicholas, gained popularity as a result of secular literature. He is not a part of religious custom. In many societies, he is a jolly elf who brings presents at Christmas time to good little boys and girls. In others, the old name, St. Nicholas, is preserved. In still others, children are told that it is the baby Jesus himself who brings them their colorfully wrapped packages of toys and other gifts.

Throughout the free-market societies of the developed world, Christmas has emerged as an orgy of consumerism. Even before Advent, the month-long church season for preparing for Christmas and the coming of the Christ, retail stores decorate for the holiday, stock with Christmas gifts, and seek to attract hordes of money-laden customers.

Commercialism has caught up even with the pleasant little story of the "Silent Night" Christmas carol in the village of Oberndorf. The carol reportedly was a such a hit with the Oberndorf villagers that it has been performed there each year since. It has become practically an industry in the Salzburg environs. Earlier this century, St. Nicholas' Church was torn down. It has been replaced at the Oberndorf site with the Silent Night Memorial Chapel and Museum. In Salzburg, at Steingasse 9, there is a Josef Mohr Birthplace Exhibition. In the town of Hallein, just south of Salzburg, the Franz Gruber Museum is located in the composer's former home. Naturally, at Christmas time, a bass and a tenor, accompanied by guitar, perform the carol in Oberndorf.

But the carol's memory evokes solemn celebration, too. Listen to this description of a Christmas Eve visit to Salzburg by New York travel writer Bert Shanas. "Shortly after 11 p.m.," Shanas wrote, "I began walking toward the square to Midnight Mass at the great cathedral. Suddenly, I was surrounded by thousands of people walking with me, clutching lit candles as they proceeded through the darkened streets toward the church. The cathedral itself, more than 350 years old, held some 10,000 people. Both Mozart and Gruber had been baptized there."

The writer went on: "The service was magnificent, the ending spectacular. Up in the balcony the Salzburg Cathedral Orchestra --40 pieces joined by the cathedral's world-famous 10,000-pipe organ-- shook the walls with a heart-thumping rendition of Mozart's 'Organ Solo Mass KV 259.' The piece reverberated around the cathedral, building to a mighty crescendo. Suddenly it was over --and quiet."

Shanas' description concluded: "Then two men came out on the balcony, overlooking the great throng seated below. One had a guitar. And as he began playing, the two began singing 'Stille Nacht' -- just as Mohr and Gruber had done more than 170 years earlier."