'Silent Night' singalongs a Mich. tradition, too

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News
LED reindeer graze near the Silent Night chapel at Bronner's Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth .

Austria isn’t the only place where “Silent Night” is celebrated every Christmas Eve.

Outside Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth stands a full-size replica of the Silent Night Memorial Chapel in Oberndorf, Austria. And every Christmas Eve, around 3 p.m., carolers gather to sing the beloved song, first in German and then in English.

It’s a nod to the tradition in Oberndorf and dates back to 1993 at Bronner’s.

“It’s a moving event,” says Lori Libka, a spokeswoman for Bronner’s. “We usually get about 60-70 people crowded inside. We pack everybody in as much as we can. This year we’ll have to play it by year because it’s the 200th anniversary of ‘Silent Night.’”

The Silent Night chapel at Bronner's Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth has four small pews. The sanctuary area is usually closed off from the public by a glass partition.

Bronner’s is expecting higher numbers this year. If there is an overflow crowd, a second singalong will immediately follow the first. The singalong lasts about 15 minutes.

The chapel was built and dedicated in 1992 at the southern tip of Bronner’s 27-acre complex, a spot founder Wally Bronner had saved for something special. He wanted to thank God for the blessings on his successful Christmas business.

Tourists leave the Silent Night chapel after dusk at Bronner's Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth on Dec 12, 2018.

“It’s a very restful and peaceful place,” Libka says. “Wally urged people to decorate their hearts as well as their homes at Christmas. So the chapel and other things play an important part of what he was trying to tell people. It’s a place of rest and peace.”

Bronner’s traces its beginnings back to 1945. Wally Bronner began importing Christmas ornaments in the 1960s and during one of his travels to Europe, he visited the original chapel in Oberndorf. He received permission from municipal and tourism officials there to build his replica.

“Wally used to lead the singing and tell the story,” Libka says, noting he passed away in 2008. “Silent Night” was one of his favorite Christmas carols.

The singalong tradition has been carried on by his family. Today, his son-in-law, Bob Spletzer, leads the singalong. He is accompanied by his son, Ryan, who plays guitar.

Tourists leave the Silent Night chapel at Bronner's Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth on Dec. 12.

 The chapel is open year round and is visited by people from about 100 countries each year, according to a guest book checked regularly by the family. The chapel grounds are lined with plaques with verses of Silent Night in about 160 languages. Inside, visitors can hear taped vocal and instrumental versions of the song

More than 2 million people shop annually at Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland, billed as the world’s largest Christmas year-round Christmas store. The store is nearly the size of two football fields.

Greg Tasker is a Michigan freelance writer.