Silent Night

 Jeff Seager and I had a fine time this past weekend, presenting the first of our Here We Come A-Caroling! programs. Our program includes Christmas carols both well-known and obscure, with the stories of the songs' creation and audience sing-along and participation.

Each year we add new material to our presentation to keep it fresh and lively, and then there are a few pieces that are requested year after year, like Silent Night.

Silent Night, as you may know, was written by Joseph Mohr almost 200 years ago, in 1816 while he was a young priest in Austria. He was transferred the following year to St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf and there he asked Franz Gruber to compose a guitar melody for the poem he had written. Gruber complied and the two men performed the song that year (1818) for midnight mass on Christmas Eve).  The men called it simply Tyrolean Folk Song.

Why did Mohr ask specifically for a guitar melody? Some speculate that it was because the organ was out of order--there is the legend that a mouse chewed on the organ bellows, making it impossible to play. Those who knew Mohr, however, knew he loved to play the guitar, so perhaps he just wanted a guitar melody he could play in church.

It is a fact that a master organ builder who had come to repair the organ many times in the past was called again to fix some problem, and he saw the music, liked it and obtained a copy which he took home with him to the Ziller Valley region.  At the time there were two families of traveling singers (like the Von Trapp family in Sound of Music) in the Ziller Valley. They heard the song and added it to their performances. They changed a few notes here and there and the song became the one we know today, but it was still written in German.

In 1839 the Rainer Family came to America and the song was first performed here in New York City; by this time its title had been changed to Stille Nacht. It was eventually translated into English in 1859 by John Freeman Young, and included in his book CAROLS FOR CHRISTMAS TIDE.

For many years it was assumed that the music for Silent Night was composed by one of the famous composers of the time (Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart). Franz Gruber wrote to the emperor claiming that he had written the music but his claim was ignored. The controversy over the composer was put to rest almost 180 years later in 1995 when a manuscript in Mohr’s handwriting notes that he wrote the lyrics and that Franz Gruber wrote the melody.

The song continued to be popular became part of another story, one that happened during World War I. At Christmas in 1914 a truce was declared, and in one place on the battlefields of France a German soldier began singing Stille Nacht (Silent Night). His song was heard by the Allied soldiers in the trenches on the other side of the battlefield, and led to all of them singing it, each in their own language. Men from both armies crossed the no-man's-land between the two sides and even, according to the legend, engaged in a game of soccer. At the end of the truce, they all retreated to their own sides and the war commenced once more. It was the first and only Christmas truce ever declared during a war, probably because the leaders on both sides realized the danger of men getting to know each other personally and perhaps not being able to fire on those they had met as friends. 

This is a powerful story, particularly when linked to the peace and beauty of the song Silent Night, and a favorite of our audiences.

Christmas Lore: The Christmas Tree

Good morning!

I spent some time reading up on the history of the Christmas tree this morning while I drank my tea. My friend Jeff and I are putting together our Christmas carols program and adding new material for this year's presentations. I always enjoy the research as we prepare the songs and stories each year.

The tree is another example of the blending of earlier pagan beliefs with the symbols and beliefs of Christianity as this "new" religion. Mistletoe, holly, a Solstice/winter celebration, the Yule log and many other aspects of earlier traditions found their way into the rituals associated with the celebration of Christ's birth. Early missionaries often found ways to link the old ways to their teachings.

The legend of Saint Boniface is one good example. According to the story, Boniface came upon a group of pagans preparing a human sacrifice at their sacred oak, called Donar's Oak. Boniface took an axe and struck a blow at the tree, which immediately fell. He then pointed to an evergreen as a symbol of the everlasting life promised by the religion he brought to them.

From The Christmas Tree by Daniel J. Foley,
Chilton Company Book Division, NY: 1960.
The custom of a decorated and lighted evergreen began in Germany, beginning with a pyramid made of wood and lighted with candles and decorated. Since it was also the custom to bring a small evergreen inside for greenery in the winter months, it's not difficult to see how the lights and decorations moved from thelichshtock to the evergreen (usually a fir). The idea did not reach American shores until the Victorian era, making its way from Germany to England first. In many instances, the greenery was simply an evergreen bough places on a table and decorated.

My 2014 tree
Some years I have a real tree, others years we have an artificial tree, but always I bring in live greenery to decorate my house, continuing the old tradition of "bringing in Christmas."

My 2011 tree
There is nothing like the scent of pine to make me feel the season is truly here. I won't do it just yet, though, because the greens will dry out, and it's still too soon to be decorating in my opinion. I prefer to wait until we've enjoyed Thanksgiving, and then move gradually into the next season. But working on the carols program puts me in the holiday mood, and makes me look forward to the pleasures on the way.

On the Ghost Walk

At the start, just at dark...

A freaky visitor to our walk...

 The sheriff has his say...

and the courthouse holds its secrets about the hanging inside...

Spooky scenes along the streets...

Whre better for a ghost story than in front of a Dead End sign?

Does the little girl rest? 

In the Old Settlers Cemetery, tales of drowning, hanging, and more.

Court street ghosts--there's more than one.

This year's walks are over, but see you next year!

Bady House Concert: Ghosts! And Other Things That Go Bump in the Night

Coming This Weekend in Brooklyn, New York:

Granny goes to the big city to spin tales of haints and spooks and creepy things for the Bady House Concert Series!

Storytelling Concert #22
Ghosts! And other things that go bump in the night.

Susanna Holstein
Andrew Linderman
Tommy O'Malley
Maria Aponte
When: October 25, 2015, 7PM

Where: BADYHouse - 85 Chester Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11218 (Kensington)
F train to Church Ave. Need directions?

Details: $15.00 + suggested donation includes storytelling plus homemade cookies and coffee & tea

For more information, contact Robin at 718-633-6651 or

A Storytelling Photo Journal

It was a wild ride, and it was fantastic fun. I told stories from pretty much one side of West Virginia to the other, mixing ghost tales, ballads, stories for children with a few side trips along the way.

It started in Ripley. This was the Do You Believe? Ghost Walks in my county's seat, and we started right at the courthouse steps. This year we had between 150 and 200 people come out for the walks over two weekends, even though it was right chilly the second Saturday. Civil War ghosts, town legends, old murders, historic homes, and the town's beginnings in frontier America all contributed to the evenings' tales.

Sunday I packed and prepared for the week's travels, and I was on the road early Monday morning, heading to Saint Albans, followed by Charleston and then Dunbar, telling West Virginia ghost stories at libraries in Kanawha county. No photos, unfortunately, as I was traveling solo so had no trusty sidekick to snap pics for me.

Tuesday morning found me in Clendenin, the home of the first library I managed. It is always fun to return and see how vibrant this library still is in this small community on the Elk River. I left there and headed north and east to Shepherdstown, WV in the far eastern panhandle of our state, to tell stories for the Speak! Shepherdstown series hosted by storyteller Adam Booth. The audience was fabulous for this event--seasoned adult listeners who really support storytelling in their community. After the evening show I drove west and south once again to Weston to be ready for the start of the West Virginia Storytelling Festival that started the next morning.

 This festival, held at Jackson's Mill, was excellent as always.

We told tales to about 1000 or more school children over two days, and participated in an evening storytelling concert for the public. Fun times!

This photo was taken in the WV Building--an unusual building built for a World's Fair and then brought back to WV. It's built of all the hardwoods found in our state.

The exterior of the WV Building, taken in the mist of early morning.

I left Jackson's Mill and headed south and west, taking the scenic route so I could once again visit two favorite places: Falls Mill and Bulltown.

Falls Mill is a small park on the site of a former mill, and Bulltown was the site of a Civil War skirmish.

West Virginia had no huge battles during the war but there were quite a few sizable skirmishes in the state. Bulltown was quiet when I stopped there, with no other visitors. There is an eerie feeling of going back in time in such a place when one is all alone. I almost felt the presence of the soldiers and family there.

Friday was booth day--we worked at Marietta to being new items to our spaces there. I'm afraid this booth was a little neglected lately while I've been on the road so much. It looked fine though, and we added a few new things. I'll post pics in a later post.

Then Saturday I drove to Cross Lanes for the last of my Kanawha county library performance series and then came back to Ripley for the Saturday night ghost walks. I was happy to see two people from the morning's program at Cross Lanes in attendance for the ghost walk--they drove a good ways to be there, bringing several friends with them.

I was kind of sad to see the end of this wild week of storytelling. I met so many people along the way, and West Virginia is wearing its beautiful fall coat so the drives were a treat in themselves.

Yesterday I unloaded my van, unpacked my suitcase, and then went over to Ravenswood to work on the booth there (pics coming in another post). And today? I think it's going to be a bit of a catch-up day, doing laundry, writing thank-you notes, paying bills, and all the mundane things that keep home running smoothly.

Storytelling Road Trip: Clendenin, Shepherdstown, and More

Off today to Clendenin (WV) Library, then to Shepherdstown (WV) for an evening performance at the Shepherdstown Community Club for the Speak! Shepherdstown Series, which is the brainchild of storyteller Adam Booth (who got standing ovations, I hear, at the National Storytelling Festival!).

Then tomorrow starts the WV Storytelling Festival at beautiful Jackson's Mill, WV, and I'll follow that up with a 6:00pm Thursday evening performance at the Elk Valley Library in Elkview, WV.

So I'll be back in a few days with tales to tel about my travels. Meantime, have a good week, friends.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights 

Ghost Walk! Tomorrow!

Dead soldiers, haunted buildings, hangings and more--and all right here in Ripley, WV.

It's the Do You Believe? Ripley Ghost Walk. Spooks abound on our one-mile walk through our small but historic town and stories sleep beneath the stones in the Old Settlers Cemetery.

The walk begins on the Courthouse steps on Court Street. First walk is at 7:00 pm, the second, for those who prefer the cover of full darkness, is at 9:00 pm. And we repeat the walks next weekend too, same time, same place.

See you there!