Songs of Christmas: Silent Night


As part of Christmas celebrations this week, people will be lighting candles and singing “Silent Night” at church services throughout the world. Therefore, I thought this would be a good week to consider “Silent Night” – a beloved Christmas carol.

German Origins
This song originated in Austria and in the German language as a song entitled “Stille Nacht” (which translates to “Silent Night”) over 200 years ago. The author of the words was a Catholic priest named Joseph Mohr who ministered in Austria. Most histories of the song that I found note that Mohr wrote the poem in 1816 but then revisited it in 1818 while serving at a church – ironically called St. Nicholas in a small town in Austria called Oberndorf. This was a time of much turmoil in Europe, as the Napoleonic Wars had just recently concluded. The dozen years of those wars ravaged Europe on all levels – politically, socially, economically, and emotionally. There were also other significant challenges of the time, such as the impact of a volcanic eruption in 1815 that caused summer snow storms which killed crops and led to a famine. In the midst of those tumultuous times, Mohr wrote this poem that conveys peace and tranquility.

In 1818, Mohr wanted a new hymn for the Christmas Eve service at the church and gave the poem to Franz Xaber Gruber, a school teacher who played the organ and led the choir at the church. Not only did Gruber not have much time to compose a melody, but the organ at the church had been damaged and not able to be used. However, it only took him a few hours to compose a tune that could be played on the guitar and it was sung for the first time that night. When a man named Karl Mauracher came to fix the organ a few weeks later, Gruber played his new song. Mauracher liked it so much he took a copy of the song home with him. From there, it appears that some prominent singers at the time (a couple of families named the Rainers and the Strassers) became familiar with it, and by 1819, were starting to sing it as they toured, spreading this song throughout Europe. This included performances for the likes of Franz I of Austria and Alexandria I of Russia, and the song seems to have become widely known by the 1840’s. It also became popular in America through the Rainers first singing the song (in German) in America in 1839 at a concert in New York City.  

American Version
As the song became popular, two things happened. First was that the music shifted a bit to become a bit slower and reflective in nature than the original version. Second, it moved out of its original language into the language of the people, leading to the English version that we sing today. The English version that became best known was rendered by John Freeman Young, an Episcopal minister serving at Trinity Church in New York. He translated it in 1859 and within a decade, this version was found in hymnals.

While the German original had six verses, Young’s translation only has three, which reflect the first, sixth, and second verse of the original (others have added additional verses; for example, the Trinity Hymnal has four verses). I have not had time to do a careful comparison of the German original and the English translation, but have largely heard that it is a good rendition of the original words, with some changes, as it is always needed in terms of translation from one language to another (especially when it comes to translating songs).

A distinctive feature of this song is that all three verses begin the same way, with these wonderful words: “Silent Night, Holy Night.” This raises a question — was that night really silent? Childbirth is not usually a silent, tranquil experience, so does the idea of Jesus’s birth being a “silent” night either mean that Jesus did not experience a typical human birth or does it cause us to misrepresent what happened that night? Perhaps the addition of “holy night” should inform how we think of “silent” night. It is not that the night of Jesus’s birth was a quiet night per se, but the events of that night actually cause us to be silent as we stand in awe of what God has done. We are silent because of what the Holy God chose to do on that night.

The first verse then moves to the fact that in a quiet town that is resting at the time (“All is calm”) are a mother and child: Mary and Jesus (“Round yon virgin mother and child / Holy infant so tender and mild”). While the repeated call to “Sleep in heavenly peace” that concludes the first verse may be intended to be directed to Jesus, I think these words also grip us as an invitation for us to rest because of the truth that Jesus has been born.

Verse two looks at the responses of the shepherds and the angels, as the shepherds “quake” and the heavenly hosts “sing Alleluia.” Their responses invite us to also proclaim the reason they do so: “Christ the Savior is born!” We both stand in awe and exclaim praise because of the birth of the Savior.

The final English verse delves into who this child is and what He does. He is proclaimed to be the “Son of God, love’s pure light.” In Christ, we see God’s light shining upon us (“Radiant beams from thy holy face”) and also are reminded that the arrival of this child stands at the beginning of the way God will come to save us by Christ’s grace (“With the dawn of redeeming grace”). The final words encapsulate what we can forget in the hustle and bustle of the holidays but stand behind the glorious truth we celebrate: “Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.”

Worldwide Impact
While I focused on the spread of the hymn throughout Europe and America, it also spread to many other places as missionaries brought the song into new countries, and today has been translated into hundreds of languages. Some have posited that the circumstances behind the writing of this song has led to both its popularity and enduring appeal, as the suffering from which it emerged is a common element of the human experience. This song was composed to speak hope and peace to those in times of trouble and that message is needed in all places and at all times. 

One of the most famous performances of this song that reflects how its message of peace and hope speaks to those in challenging circumstances was the Christmas Truce of 1914. This was when German and British soldiers fighting on the front lines put away their weapons for a moment and sang “Silent Night” together. As with most events in history, there has been some debate about the exact details of what happened; however, the popularity and the content of the song make it easy to envision how it could serve to unite people on opposing sides of a conflict. 

This song came out of a tumultuous time and served to help others in challenging periods. In light of our experiences over the past couple of years, may this song today offer a special peace and comfort to us that the Light of the World has come to shine forth and conquer the darkness.

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