An Austrian Railroad Christmas

An Austrian railroad Christmas

Revised repost with pictures

 

A version of this story appeared in the magazine German Life in 2006.  The story is based on a trip to Austria made in December of 2001.

 German Life is an American magazine focusing on the culture of and travel to the German-speaking countries of Europe, including Austria and Switzerland.  The magazine’s Web site is at http://www.germanlife.com .

 

 

By Ernest H. Robl

 

During the short and often dark days preceding Christmas, you may encounter Austrian railroad employees—both on the national system and on smaller private railroads—carrying a small flame in a simple wood and glass lantern.

That lantern doesn’t indicate failure of modern lighting or signaling appliances.  Rather, it’s the railroads’ way of distributing the “Friedenslicht”—the Light of Peace.

Just as year-round, the railroads deliver passengers and freight, during Advent, they deliver a light that comes from Bethlehem and that many Austrians take into their homes as part of their observance of Christmas.

 

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A railroader from the Salzburger Lokalbahn (SLB) brings the Friedenslicht lantern to the front of historic car ET3 while the car is still in the tunnel under downtown Salzburg.

 

Lit in Bethlehem and brought to Austria in a miner’s lantern, much the way the Olympic flame is transported across oceans, this one flame is multiplied tens of thousands of times.  Each successive lantern or candle is lit from a flame—whose origin can always be traced back to that single flame that came from Bethlehem.

Particularly on the December 24th, Christmas Eve, you’ll find the peace light burning in staffed stations throughout Austria—and aboard many trains, so that the light can be distributed even at the smaller unmanned stops.

Real candles

Austrians even use the Friedenslicht to light candles on their Christmas trees.  Yes, many Austrians still use real candles.  (And, yes, many Austrians also manage to set their trees and homes on fire during the Christmas season.  Public service announcements caution about keeping trees moist—and a fire extinguisher handy.)

Railroads aren’t alone in distributing that light of peace.  ORF (the Austrian Broadcasting Service), Scouting groups, and the Austrian Red Cross all participate.

But it is the railroads, with their network of thousands of trains and many hundreds of stations, that make the light of peace accessible to even the residents of the smallest and most far-flung towns.   Even there, candles for the church or the local Christmas procession can be lit from a flame that has come from Bethlehem.

 

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Two railroaders from the SLB help a small child light his Christmas candle from the railroad’s light of peace.

When the annual Christmas procession retracing the steps of the authors of “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (Silent Night, Holy Night) begins in the tiny village of Arnsdorf, heading to Oberndorf, the marchers there, too, have lit their candles from the light distributed by the railroaders.  In this case, they’re employees of the Salzburger Lokalbahn (SLB or Salzburg Local Railway), who received the flame from the Austrian Federal Railways.  Arnsdorf, where one of the authors lived, and Oberndorf, where the much-beloved Christmas song was first heard, are only a few miles from Salzburg.

Christmas Eve

On Christmas Eve morning, the SLB makes a special run to the end of its line with its pride and joy, a 1908 self-propelled car that’s beautifully restored and still fully operational.  The electronic departure board in Salzburg even announces “Friedenslicht.”  Passengers are welcome to ride for free, and a handful usually do—but the most honored passenger is a small lantern, with a carefully guarded flame.

During stops in the small towns above Salzburg, young and old come to light their own candles from that simple lantern, helping to spread that light of peace from Bethlehem.

Volunteer musicians from the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) accompany this run and engage in “Adventblasen”—the performance of seasonal music by a small brass band.

 

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The control stand of century-old SLB car ET3 frames a quartet of railroad musicians playing seasonal tunes.  (The “coffee grinder” controls of this car are very similar to those on the old Vienna streetcars that my paternal grandfather operated in the early 1950s.)

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SLB marketing manager Peter Brandl (a transportation engineer by training) is personally at the controls of ET3 on its Christmas Eve run.  A fascinated young rideruses the opportunity to find out about the historic car.  (The two-way radio is about the only concession to modern technology.)

Later, with dusk approaching, the SLB fields another special train consisting of all of the SLB’s other historic equipment—as long a train as can be accommodated in stations.  From the SLB shops, the train heads to downtown Salzburg.

There, warmly bundled-up residents begin filling up this free train.  At 3:15 pm, with the light of day beginning to fade, the train starts climbing toward Arnsdorf, picking up hundreds more people along the way.

Meanwhile, others have already traveled to Arnsdorf from up and down the commuter line all day long.  (Don’t try to drive to Arnsdorf; there is no room for cars in this tiny village—especially on Christmas Eve.)

Fully loaded by the time it reaches Arnsdorf, the train empties out at the village’s commuter stop, half a mile from the town itself—a stop that normally sees only a handful of people in a day.  Then, the entire assemblage starts crunching through the snow, down a narrow country road into town.

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From the commuter train stop, bundled-up riders head to the town of Arnsdorf, where the memorial march begins, …

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… while in a field local residents fire a celebratory salute with their blunderbuss type weapons.

The floodlit steeple of the Arnsdorf pilgrimage church beckons the throng, including families with children, couples with dogs, and even the elderly who need canes to walk.  Depending on the weather—this part of Austria has chilly winters with substantial pre-Christmas snow—these walkers may face a very cold and windy few miles in the open countryside.

At Arnsdorf volunteer firemen provide the first welcome, warming the marchers not with fire but with “Glühwein,”—wine warmed in a gas-fired cauldron.  In a nearby field, an honor guard fires celebratory “Böller”—a word describing both the medieval weapons used and the loud bang that they produce.

Then the crowd packs into the village square, multiplying Arnsdorf’s normal population by a hundred-fold.

Welcoming speeches are simple and brief, followed by songs from a choir and melodies from an instrumental group.  A young girl, dressed in white, appears as the Christmas angel—but is quickly hustled back inside to shield her from the biting cold.

But this all just leads to the main event, the singing of “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.”

Following tradition harkening back to the first performance, a male soloist, accompanied only by a single guitar performs the first verse.  Then the entire assemblage, each breath forming clouds in the chilly air, repeats the first verse—and joins in singing additional verses.

Don’t know German?  Any language will do.

Finally, as the last words fade, the bells of the church take up the melody.  At that point, those who have not already done so light their candles, lanterns, and torches and begin crunching along yet another narrow country road in the direction of Oberndorf.  Yes, these lights are all part of the Friedenslicht.

After that, there’s no more singing.  In Austria, once you’ve sung “Silent Night,” you’ve said all there is to say about Christmas.  And, it’s much too cold to walk and sing at the same time.

A river of candles

The event is billed as a “Fackelzug,” a torchlight procession, but there are far more candles than torches.  Officially, it’s the annual Gruber-Mohr memorial walk.  Unofficially, it’s a step back in time to a simpler era.

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With their candles, marchers set out toward Oberndorf over the frozen countryside.  

 

In the deep snow along the country roads, locals have set out hundreds of other candles, each lit by the first marchers.  Where the wind has snuffed out a wayside candle or that of one of the marchers, there’s always someone available to relight that candle from his or her own.

If you wear glasses, they will fog up from your breath, giving each of the thousands of points of light a tiny halo.  There’s little talking, as just walking through the bitter cold takes all your concentration.

As the procession nears each village—tiny communities of a few hundred people at most—each town fires off a single multi-colored firework shell—a Christmas star, showing the way.

At the end of the walk, you’ll be cold and tired.  But, you’ll be in good company as you board a Lokalbahn train back to a warm dinner and an equally warm bed at a hotel in Salzburg.  Tomorrow, there’ll be time to take in a high mass at one of Salzburg’s many churches, if you so choose.

 

 

###ehr###

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On a cold December morning, a lone hiker climbs up the embankment to the Salzach River.  Her bright snowsuit adds a splash of color to the wintery scene.  In the background is the Silent Night Chapel, marking the spot where Silent Night was first performed.  (The chapel is available as a scale model from Vollmer.)

 

And, finally, a view of Alpine Western Austria, photographed from a passing train on the route between Salzburg and Innsbruck.

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One Response to An Austrian Railroad Christmas

  1. John Wachsmuth says:

    What a beautiful story — and experience for those participating.

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