It’s always the same as Christmas gets closer, and we start thinking of Christmases past: happy and sad memories come flooding in, and sometimes funny ones, too. I wish everyone reading this a happy Christmas (it doesn’t have to be merry!) and may Christmas 2012 remain in your list of Christmases as a memory you enjoy recalling. Especially as we are still here to celebrate it in spite of the Mayan calendar.
One particular yuletide that sticks in my memory is (I think) that of 1990. Seeking a picture-postcard setting, my husband and I went to Salzburg for a few days, where we did indeed find a delightfully picturesque little town straight out of a romantic picture book.
The most famous Christmas carol of all, Stille Nacht (Silent Night), was first sung in the village church of Oberndorf, just north of Salzburg, so when we discovered that on 24 December there was an exclusive excursion by steam train to Oberndorf, which included a torchlight procession to the Stille Nacht Kapelle and a special performance of Silent Night by the local school children, we booked our tickets right away.
Although you can usually count on a white Christmas in the Salzburg area, that year we had a very strong Föhn storm on 24 December. The Föhn is a very powerful, warm, southerly wind that blows in the Alps, and is known as the snow-eater – I have described it before on this blog – so the day was warm and bright.
Our journey started well enough in the early afternoon. The train took about half an hour to reach our destination. We were a jolly group of about 15 people and during the journey we were provided with chocolates and our Fackel (torch), which would be lit from a flame specially brought from Bethlehem.
On arrival we were taken to the schoolhouse where Franz Xaver Gruber, the author of the lyrics of the carol, had taught. Here we were treated to traditional Christmas cookies and a paper cup of Jägertee (weak tea laced with spices and rum) whilst the village children, dressed in the familiar Tyrolean loden capes, and accompanied by their teacher on the guitar, re-enacted the first performance of this famous song. Then, as twilight had fallen, we lit our torches from the blessed flame and set off in the direction of the Silent Night Chapel, where there was to be a special service at 5 pm including the carol being sung in several different languages.
I have no idea how far the schoolhouse is from the chapel, but the route we took led through fields and forest, and by day must have been very pretty. It was probably about a mile. However, this was a very dark night and the only light we had was from our torch flames so our little group had to stay close together. There was a plentiful supply of hot Jägertee, keeping spirits high as our paper cups were constantly replenished although it wasn’t terribly cold, because of the Föhn. Unfortunately, the Föhn also kept blowing our torches out and we had been given strict instructions to rekindle any extinguished torch only from another torch in order to keep the flame from Bethlehem alive. That slowed everyone down, as we gathered to relight our flames, tripped over one another in the dark, refilled our cups of rum-laden tea, waited for stragglers and helped each other in the attempts to keep at least one torch burning.
At first, this caused a certain amount of merriment, but after a while people began to get weary. We hadn’t been warned of this hike, and most of us women were wearing our city boots with high heels so we were not very comfortable on dirt tracks and woodland paths. The constant input of tea also had a diuretic effect on some, necessitating short trips into the bushes where it was pitch dark (nobody took their torch with them on that brief excursion), and one poor lady fell down in a ditch and hurt her ankle very badly so the pace of the entire group was reduced to the rate at which she could hobble.
Tempers gradually grew shorter and shorter, but then we saw house lights and found ourselves in the village, where we could at last see where we were going, and eventually we arrived at the famous chapel, which was brightly illuminated. At that moment, the door was flung open, exuding a strong odour of incense as the congregation emerged. We had spent too long on our trek, and missed the service entirely. Tired, hungry and not in a very festive mood any more, we had just time to peep into the chapel and then had to hurry to the station to get the train back to Salzburg.
We had eaten a hearty breakfast and skipped lunch in order to get to the station in time to catch our train, so by the time we arrived back in Salzburg we were very hungry. In Germanic countries, Christmas Eve is the big day when people exchange presents and celebrate. We returned to our hotel in the centre of the old town, only to be told that the restaurant was completely booked out for the evening. We weren’t too bothered – after all, Salzburg is full of hotels and restaurants – but as we walked from one establishment to another we rapidly discovered that we had made a huge mistake by not reserving a table somewhere in advance: like our famous predecessors, we found there was no room for us in any inn that evening!
Footsore, starving and extremely disgruntled, we finally got back to our hotel at about 10 pm and in desperation asked once more if they couldn’t squeeze us into the restaurant somewhere. The maître d’ looked at us pityingly, and said we should go to our room and he’d call us down as soon as a table became free. He was as good as his word, and at 11 pm we finally sat down to our dinner. It was a Mexican restaurant, the kitchen was about to close, so we had no choice of menu. Luckily, we both liked chilli con carne.
Needless to say, the first thing we did on Christmas morning was to make sure we had a reservation for dinner at one of the best restaurants in town! It wasn’t far to walk from our hotel, the ambiance and meal were excellent, and after a glass of delicious wine we had a good long chuckle over our adventure on Christmas Eve.