Byron's Babbles

Silent Nights of Peace

Posted in Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, Christmas, Silent Night, Wally Bronner by Dr. Byron L. Ernest on December 25, 2021

Most people don’t remember the first time they heard or sang Silent Night. We just know it has always been a part of our Christmas music selection list. My wife and I actually had my Aunt Virginia (professional organist) play Silent Night at our wedding 36 years ago this past December 21st. It wasn’t until I went to the Silent Night Chapel at Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland a couple of weeks ago that I began to take a deep dive into understanding the significance of the most widely known Christmas Carol of all time. Bronner’s Silent Night Chapel is an exact 1:1 replica of the original chapel in Oberndorf/Salzburg, Austria, which marks the site where Silent Night was first sung on Christmas Eve in 1818.

After the Napoleonic wars had taken their toll in 1816, a young priest in Austria, Joseph Mohr, took a walk and was overwhelmed by all the stars in the sky and the quietness of a city finally at peace. He went back and wrote the words. Then, on Christmas Eve, 1818, the now-famous carol was first performed as Stille Nacht Heilige Nacht. Joseph Mohr, the young priest who wrote the lyrics, played the guitar and sang along with Franz Xaver Gruber, the choir director who had written the melody.

Bronner’s Silent Night Memorial Chapel

So why is the a replica of the Silent Night Memorial Chapel significant? Dedicated in 1937, the Chapel in Oberndorf, Austria, was built on the alter site of the original St. Nicholas Church. During a visit to the site, Wally Bronner was inspired to build an exact replica on the south end of his store’s 27 acre complex near the south entrance to Frankenmuth, Michigan. Hundreds of thousands of visitors walk in the replica chapel every year. Just as this visit inspired me to understand even more deeply the meaning of the words of Silent Night, I am sure every person entering that chapel finds some inspiration or peace.

So why was it important for me to take a deep dive into Silent Night and come to a place of understanding of the inspiration for Mohr to write these immortal lyrics? Today, Silent Night is perhaps the most famous Christmas carol in history. It has been translated into most languages, and the Bing Crosby version is the third-bestselling single in history. It took the cultural landmark at Bronner’s CHRISTMAS Wonderland to trigger my learning. The song itself was even declared to be an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2011.

May we have peace on earth and our nights be starlit, blessed, and silent.


Wally Notes

Here’s another post inspired by my visit last week to Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland. As I explained in Warm & Fuzzy Leadership, I had the opportunity to learn about the founder, Wally Bronner. One of the things they told about Wally was that he was a first rate relationship builder and really knew those around him. He would also leave what had come to be known as “Wally Notes.” These might be congratulatory, thank you’s, new ideas, or suggestions. One thing was for sure from those being interviewed; “Wally Notes” were meaningful and special. One person speaking was an owner of another business in Frankenmuth, and he explained that he got a “Wally Note” that had a suggestion that ended up helping his business tremendously. Now that’s being a great community friend and leader!

This made me think about the leaders that people cringe when they see their name come up on email or text. Why? Because it will be a berating or one more thing to do. Wally knew his people. And is wasn’t the fake kind of knowing. He really made sure he knew what was going on. When he was working with a new supplier, they said he wanted to talk to everyone in the company; right to the person cleaning the floor at the end of the day. He also spent a lot of time out in the store talking to and getting to know customers. Wally was people centric – he understood that people are the most important part of any community or organization. It is unfortunate that so many leaders view people as throw aways, or pawns. They forget that every individual has their own identity.

Globally, many times we work with individuals or groups who have different cultural norms and behavioral expectations. It can often seem as if we have to choose between what is expected, and therefore effective, and what feels authentic. This is why relationship building is so important. We must really get to know our constituents. To be good leaders, we must influence, inspire and mentor our team members. Nearly half of the people who leave jobs, do so because of a bad boss/leader. Retention not so good? Well…

Let’s take a page out of the Wally Bronner play book. We can grow our influences by caring for our team, community, and organization listening to their thoughts and ideas, and sharing. “Wally Notes” were one way Wally found to effectively share. When was the last time you let those you serve know their value to the organization, shared a suggestion (not in the form of a task in a text), a congratulations, or the importance of their work to the organization?

Warm & Fuzzy Leadership

I had the honor of working with educators in Michigan this week. That also gave me the opportunity to visit Frankenmuth, Michigan. Now, if you don’t know about this city, it is truly “Christmas Land.” It is home to the world’s largest (literally, 27 acres) Christmas store: Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland. I had only been to Frankenmuth once before, but this was one of my mom’s favorite places in the world. My dad and her would trek up here once a year. This time I had the opportunity to go to a program about the founder of Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, Wally Bronner. The program was all about how he got started.

The business started in his parents’ basement as a hobby when Wally was a kid. Here’s what Wally wrote about himself: “My hobby of signs, displays and decorations developed into a full-time business, and I never went to work. Since I never went to work, I don’t have to think of retirement, and I’ll continue the hobby, God-willing, but only on days that end in ‘y’.” I loved this! To me this was a better way to approach life than the old adage of, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” This really made me think about all the great businesses have been started as hobbies, or someone setting out to solve a need as a hobby.

I’m sure I will blog more about Wally, but as I listened to the employees speak of his life and influence there were a few things that stuck out. As a leader, those he led described him not as “charismatic,” but “warm and fuzzy.” I loved this. He was shown in videos meeting Presidents, dignitaries, fellow Frankenmuth business owners, and the employees he served. And yes, he was “warm and fuzzy!” Interestingly most things written about the warm and fuzzy are negative, but I gotta tell you it’s just being good to people. I could just tell from the personal reflections and video that Wally treated everyone right and was the same person with royalty or anyone in his wonderland. In fact there was a clip of Wally stating that one of his most important core values was recognizing every person’s, “…Value, dignity, and importance.” In other words he was a “people person.” And, I for one respect those who are “people persons.”

You know. Those who support their people in such ways build invaluable trust that helps keep employees motivated, engaged, and willing to follow the leader even when things get tough. Leadership implies values. A leader must have values that are life-giving to society. It is the only kind of leadership we need. So many leaders I have encountered are manipulative. You know the ones. The answer or action will always be in her/his best interest, not the other persons’. Not Wally. To him business was all bout serving the needs of others. The Michigan educators actually talked about the need for leaders to really care. So, what did Wally have? He had a purpose that was larger than he was and the balanced personality and skills to put that purpose into action. It was great to chill out in Frankenmuth and learn more about Wally Bronner.