One of the best-loved Christmas songs of all time originated in 1818 in Austria.
Joseph Mohr, then assistant pastor at the church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, had written a poem called “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”) several years earlier, and he asked the St. Nicholas choir director and organist, Franz Gruber, to compose music for the words, for two solo voices accompanied by a guitar and choir.
Legend has it that the music was composed in a short time because the church organ was not working and Christmas Eve was at hand. A more recent look at the history suggest that the song was unlikely composed in an afternoon or two, as the oft-repeated story says. No matter where the truth lies, “Silent Night” (“Stille Nacht”) was sung for the first time for midnight mass on December 24, 1818 with Mohr, Gruber, and the choir.
The church was damaged several times, particularly by flooding and was torn down in 1913. A replica — the Silent Night Chapel with seating for no more than 20 — was built in its place and opened in 1937. A pink building next to the chapel is the vicarage in which Joseph Mohr lived while serving in Oberndorf between 1817 and 1819.
In 1949, Austria issued a stamp for the 130th anniversary of “Silent Night.” The stamp features portraits of Mohr and Gruber. In 1968, Austria commemorated the 150th anniversary of the beloved carol with a stamp picturing the creche at the Silent Night Memorial Chapel in Oberndorf.
Austria’s first certain Christmas stamp (see our “Christmas Firsts” blog published earlier about stamps from 1937) was issued in 1953. It depicts a child gazing angelically upward toward a partially visual Christmas tree. The design, in dark green, was popular enough that it was reprinted the next year in dark blue.
Austria also has a long storied tradition involving special Christmas postal cancellations — called Christkindl (Christ child) postmarks. These postmarks originate from the Church of Christkindl, which is a town in Upper Austria, close to Styria.
Originally the village started as a pilgrimage shrine where a healing miracle had occurred. According to folklore, Ferdinand Sertl, a choirmaster and organist who suffered from epilepsy, visited the area in the winter of 1691. For health reasons, often walked and prayed in the woods. On one occasion he carried a small statue of the Christ Child given to him by nuns from a nearby convent. He placed the statue in a niche he had cut in a pine tree. Kneeling before the statue, he prayed for relief from his illness. His health improved. Locals heard of the cure and the pilgrimage began. In 1697, a small wooden enclosure was built around the tree. In 1708, Abbot Anselm Angerer erected a church at the site. The church was reconstructed in 1877 and incorporated the original pine tree trunk into the altar.
As a seasonal promotion, Austrian postal officials set up a post office at the church in 1950 to add Christmas postmarks to mail items. The church was then in the Russian Occupation Zone. Seeing something sinister in the proceedings, mail with the postmark of the Christ Child carrying a tree was allowed to be sent only within Austria. About 42,000 pieces received this green cancel. In 1951, the postmark was allowed on international mail and more than 50,000 items received the postmark.
The tradition continues today and, just as people in the U.S. may seek special Christmas cancellations from places like Santa Claus, Indiana, or Christmas, Florida, thousands of Austrians seek the Christkindl postmark for their holiday mail.