It all began with some mice, a broken organ and a substitute guitar.
On Christmas Eve, 1818, the assistant pastor and choir master from Oberndorf, a village just outside Salzburg, hurriedly pulled together a new Christmas song to play during Mass. It was composed and played on a humble guitar due to the church organ being out of commission, its bellows chewed through by hungry rodents.
Or so the legend goes. It seems that myths and time-honoured embellishments may have distorted some facts behind the creation of Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht (Silent Night, Holy Night).
But what is undeniable is that the six-stanza song first performed 200 years ago in the tiny chapel went on to become the most popular Christmas tune of all time. It has been translated into 300 languages and dialects, covered by countless entertainers and declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2011.
But while the local song that captivated the world was the focus back in 2018, the Advent celebration in the weeks prior to 25 December is always a special time in Salzburg, with the beautiful Baroque city straddling the River Salzach transforming into a wonderland as winter sets in.
A Salzburg ChristmasA light dusting of snow has fallen when we arrive in Salzburg at the beginning of December. The trees flanking the fortress that looms above the Old City have turned to ice and brittle branches resembling crystallised wands are twinkling under the dying rays of the sun.
In the centre of town, ice skaters zoom and twirl under the watchful gaze of Mozart’s statue, while families strolling along cobbled streets beneath ancient wrought-iron shop signs take time out in traditional coffee houses such as Tomaselli, Austria’s oldest café, dating back to 1700.
As evening descends, the fairies work their magic in the town squares, where pop-up markets illuminated by strings of lights sell handmade Christmas baubles, wreaths, winter woollies, wooden toys and gingerbread hearts.
Shivering shoppers huddle together humming carols outside stalls serving steaming mugs of glühwein, potent punch and Jägermeister-spiked tea. The largest of Salzburg’s Advent markets is the Christkindlmarkt on Domplatz und Residenzplatz, the main squares that are packed during peak-hour on weekends as tourists pour into the city to share in the yuletide spirit.
Nothing beats a Christmas market
More than 500 years old, this market features about 96 stalls. The market also holds special events during the season, including choral concerts, readings of Christmas stories for children, and visits by the ‘Christ child’ – the traditional gift-bringer in Austria and Bavaria, usually depicted as a cherub with golden curls and angelic wings. South of the city, Hellbrunn Advent Magic also lures visitors with an oversized Advent Calendar, a children’s petting zoo and rows of arts and craft stands, spread throughout romantic parkland outside the gracious, yellow-hued Schloss Hellbrunn.
Avenues of conifers are decorated with 13,000 shiny red balls; a mystical eight-metre-tall angel with a wafting, watery skirt oversees a frosty pond; and horse-drawn carriages trot past the original Sound of Music gazebo, transplanted into the park to satisfy devotees of the beloved musical story.
While the Advent tradition produces a month of festive magic, it’s Christmas year-round at the Salzburg Christmas Museum on Mozart Square.
Showcasing historic Christmas-themed memorabilia dating from 1840 to 1940, this extraordinary and detailed display is the personal collection of Ursula Kloiber, with her own grandmother’s Christmas tree decorations forming the foundation of her lifelong obsession.
The two-roomed museum is divided into 11 themed sections, with the first focusing on Advent Calendars, the tradition of opening little doors on each of the 24 days before Christmas, which dates back to 1920.
There are also displays of wooden nutcrackers, gingerbread moulds and nativity scenes, as well as a fascinating collection of Christmas ornaments.
Originally, Christmas decorations were edible trees, adorned with apples, nuts, candies and meringues. It was only in the second half of the 19th century that decorations made of wood, wax, metal and glass were added.
The Krampus is coming
The Christmas of Ursula Kloiber’s museum is a wondrous journey into innocence, whimsy and childhood fantasy; but lurking amid the tinsel and angels is a dark and foreboding presence that counters the seasonal goodwill in this part of Europe: the Krampus. This terrifying creature – often depicted as a goat-headed, fanged, hunchbacked demon who carries chains and whips – is the traditional sidekick to the red-cloaked Saint Nikolaus, who visits homes on 6 December bearing gifts for good children.
But woe betide any waif who has been naughty. Those who don’t pass muster are unceremoniously scooped up by the hideous Krampus, placed in a sack on his back and discarded in the woods, taken to his lair or even eaten – a potential fate that leaves children throughout Bavaria quaking in their boots.
Although derided in the 20th century as a figure of evil, Krampus has reared his very ugly head with a vengeance in modern-day Salzburg, featuring in parades and ‘Krampus runs’ held on and around 5 December.
I’m curious to see this pagan derivative in action; locals, however, warn me to be careful, as men behind the intricate, workshop-created wooden masks have been known to take their role too seriously, chasing innocent bystanders through the streets, rattling their chains aggressively and throwing mulled wine at passers-by.
When we stumble across a Krampus run in the back streets of Salzburg, however, we discover a far more benign display. While there is an obligatory show of whip-cracking and butt slapping, the costumed men seem to view the occasion more as a photo opportunity.
In fact, when I ask one Krampus to pose for a selfie, he complies with what I’m sure is a smile, patting me on the back afterwards in an act of paternal-like approval. Seems I was on St Nikolaus’ ‘nice’ list after all! •
Photography by Julie Miller and Tourism Salzburg
This article was first published in May, 2018 and updated in December, 2020.