Rick Steves’ European Christmas: Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht in Austria

The festive swirl of heartwarming sights, sounds, and smells of Christmas abound in the land where the season’s most-loved carol, “Silent Night,” was first performed over 200 years ago.

When we were making our Rick Steves’ European Christmas special, we knew that filming an intimate family Christmas feast would not necessarily come out natural and fun-loving on TV, so we filmed two and picked the best. The Bavarian family the German Tourist Board lined up for us tried hard. But the evening just felt stiff. We spent long hours feasting and filming with them, but ended up with nothing usable.

Thankfully, just over the border, the traditional Austrian family we filmed the next night exceeded all hopes. They took me dashing through the snow in a two-horse open sleigh. By the way, as you watch this clip, imagine the stress of knowing that in 15 minutes, the light will be gone and the delightful sleigh bit will become unusable. We scrambled to reach their home late after a long day of filming and had to really keep things moving along — cutting the friendly welcomes (without being rude to the kind and eager people who have no idea how critical the fading light is), and getting the horses all in gear and clip-clopping merrily past the cameraman.

Then, at the door of their gingerbread-cute yet massive home, the entire family greeted us with a Christmas yodel. Inside their time-warp home, a classic grandma was making cookies with children you just had to pinch, an old Habsburg grandpa played the zither, Mom lit the advent wreath while teaching her child the significance of each candle, and Dad blessed the house from the attic to the barn with incense as his daughter sprinkled holy water with a sprig of spruce. (Part of my goal with this program was to explain the meaning behind some of our rituals — like the Advent wreath — in a traditional European context.) The parents secretly decorated the tree, placed the gifts, and lit the real candles. They rang the bell, and the kids tumbled into the room, filled with wonder. When our cameraman smiles as he films, I know we’re getting good footage.

Austria had its musical ups and downs. I was excited to experience the ritual reenactment of the first performance of “Silent Night” in Oberndorf, the village where it originated. We scrambled to get out there on Christmas Eve and set up at the several spots where events were taking place. But it was basically a muddy, touristy mess, with underwhelming music and not a hint of the magic we had naively hoped for. I managed to persuade the musicians to perform a private little concert for us in the church, so we at least filmed “Silent Night” as it was first performed (two guitars and two singers). My Christmas Eve dinner was the last two bratwursts on the griddle with a stale roll, snapped up just as they were closing down the tent.

Racing back into Salzburg to salvage something of Christmas Eve, we hiked to the abbey where Maria of The Sound of Music caused her fellow sisters to sing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” The sisters had agreed to let our crew be present at their holy Mass, but I guess they didn’t understand we wanted to actually use the big camera we lugged up the hill. When we got there, they said no camera — just a microphone. Our sound man carefully set up the microphone stand to the side of the altar facing the choir of nuns (as I sat in the back, happily humming “Climb Every Mountain”). Suddenly, the old but very spry Mother Superior dashed across the altar in the direction of the out-of-sight nuns’ choir. Seconds later, our sound man was evicted — dragging all his gear, along with his tail between his legs, out of that restricted holy zone. He had to set up the mic farther back in the nave, making the recording unusable.

Thankfully, the next day — Christmas morning — we were given a royal perch from which to shoot in the Salzburg cathedral as a huge orchestra and choir filled the place with a glorious Diabelli Mass.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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