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Silent Night

Score of Silent Night
1860 autographed copy of 'Stille Nacht'
(Click image to enlarge)

A paunchy geriatric troll with a raucous laugh (a.k.a. Santa Claus); children screaming with joy at the presents he brings; church bells jingling for hours on end; the 'Hallelujah Chorus' of Handel's Messiah ringing in our ears...

How on earth can we get away from that noise and have a Silent Night?

by Douglas Hargreaves
Sydney, NSW

Music score

Other languages

Other hymns



Christmas Carol

Fr. Joseph Mohr
Fr. Joseph Mohr

Franz Xaver Gruber
Franz Gruber

The author was Joseph Mohr, a Roman Catholic priest living near Salzburg, who wrote Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht in 1816. His schoolteacher friend and fellow Austrian, Franz Xaver Gruber, wrote the accompanying music in 1818 and was the first to play it at a carol service on his guitar.

American John Freeman Young is credited with translating the German composition to English in 1859.

The melody is a lullaby and the subject is the baby Jesus. It is simple to sing and simple to play on most instruments. Not surprisingly, it is today probably the world's most popular Christmas carol.

Silent Night Museum
Silent Night Museum

It is so popular that not only was it declared an intangible cultural heritage by Unesco in 2011, it also has its own fan club; the Silent Night Society. Books, pop recordings and television documentaries have been made, and it even has its own websites: www.silentnight.web.za and www.silentnight.info

There is also a Silent Night Museum and Memorial Chapel in Oberndorf (Stille-Nacht-Gedächtniskapelle: www.stillenacht-oberndorf.at/). Tourist buses visit, giving people from around the world the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the hymn's birth-place.

This is what they come to see and hear:

1
Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute heilige Paar.
Holder Knab im lockigten Haar,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
2
Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Gottes Sohn! O wie lacht
Lieb' aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da schlägt uns die rettende Stund'.
Jesus in deiner Geburt!
Jesus in deiner Geburt!
3
Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Die der Welt Heil gebracht,
Aus des Himmels goldenen Höhn
Uns der Gnaden Fülle läßt seh'n
Jesum in Menschengestalt,
Jesum in Menschengestalt
4
Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Wo sich heut alle Macht
Väterlicher Liebe ergoß
Und als Bruder huldvoll umschloß
Jesus die Völker der Welt,
Jesus die Völker der Welt.
5
Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Lange schon uns bedacht,
Als der Herr vom Grimme befreit,
In der Väter urgrauer Zeit
Aller Welt Schonung verhieß,
Aller Welt Schonung verhieß.
6
Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Alleluja,
Tönt es laut bei Ferne und Nah:
Jesus der Retter ist da!
Jesus der Retter ist da!

Adeste fideles, by John F Wade
(Click image for full score)

There are numerous English versions, which usually have just three verses corresponding to the original German verses 1, 6 and 2 (in that order). Below we show the uncomplicated version sung in the Salvation Army:

1
Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round the virgin mother and child;
Holy infant, tender and mild,
Rests in heavenly peace.
Rests in heavenly peace.
2
Silent night! Holy night!
Guiding star, lend thy light.
See, the Eastern wise men bring
Gifts and homage to our King,
Jesus Christ is here.
Jesus Christ is here.
3
Silent night! Holy night!
Wondrous star, lend thy light.
With the angels let us sing
Hallelujahs to our King,
Jesus Christ is here.
Jesus Christ is here.

And that's about all we want to say about the carol's history. We have no wish to compete with the excellent papers and websites which go into more detail about the authors and how the verses were written1. Rather, we focus on the meaning behind the words.

Meaning

The first verse in German translates literally as:

Silent night! Holy night!
All are sleeping; alone and awake
Only the intimate holy pair,
Lovely boy with curly hair,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!

...which doesn't make much sense.

All are sleeping ... and awake?

Yes, everyone in the town was probably asleep, except for the 'holy pair', Mary and Joseph. (Notice there is no punctuation after the word 'awake'.) They were very much awake with their newborn baby Jesus. Lovely boy with curly hair, Sleep in heavenly peace. This is, after all, a lullaby,

But there is a deeper meaning to be revealed from this hymn.

All is calm, all is bright

Around the virgin mother and child; surrounding the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus is calm, yet bright.

Bright? We read in Luke 1:26-35 that Mary was a virgin; something miraculous and notable. 'Bright' is an understatement; the birth of Jesus was a miracle!

Jesus Christ is here. Jesus Christ is here.

Sometimes the translation is "Jesus Christ is born" but we know from John 1:1-3, & 14 that he had a heavenly pre-existence.

Why would God do such a thing? Why would God come to this world in human form? And why would he come as a baby, rather than a more majestic 'god-like' form?

So great is God's love for us, that he humbled himself for us (Phil. 2:8), not only by arriving in a dirty and smelly stable (Gal. 4:4, Luke 2:7, John 1:46, Heb. 2:9), nor his humble lifestyle, but most importantly, he came to this world to be a sacrificial lamb to pay for our sins. (John 1:29)

The key word of this hymn is "Silent", and it is the first word of each verse.

Spiritual silence

Christmas is a time when we remember the birth of Jesus. From that particular moment, from the very second that Jesus took his first breath of the cool Bethlehem night air, the world changed. The world changed greater than it had ever done before. And the world has not changed as much since. The birth of Jesus was the biggest event this world has ever witnessed.

For the next thirty years or so, Jesus walked about teaching, preaching, healing and guiding. Jesus packed more into his short adult life than we can imagine. The change he made was so great that people are still talking about it all over the world 2,000 years later! (Even more remarkable when you consider the world's population has increased about 24-fold since that time2)

When Jesus was crucified, his departure from human form gave the opportunity for all mankind to enjoy spiritual salvation. (See the Meaning of the Cross) Nothing, absolutely nothing, comes remotely close to the importance of the life of Jesus.

The only way we can fully appreciate what this means is to have inward silence of the mind. "Be still, and know that I am God." (Ps. 46:10). This is not an original idea; Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and most other religions, monastic or otherwise, recognize the value of silent meditation in its various forms.

In being silent, having inner silence, we can free ourselves from interference and enable real communication with God. In silence, we can see the condition of our spiritual lives much more clearly. Warts'n'all.

In normal day-to-day activities, when there is anything but silence, we easily hide our sin from ourselves and forget it is there. Others can see it, and of course God can see it.

In silence, we can acknowledge our sin, face it, and also see more clearly the love of God and his willingness to forgive.

The life of Christ on earth was perfect, of course. And his humility is a vivid example of the most righteous way to live in this world.

You see; there are many things to meditate on when we sing "Silent Night". Being silent and facing our sin is a most humbling experience.


1 :For more information, see: www.silentnight.web.za and www.silentnight.info
2 :The US Census Bureau's Historical Estimates of World Population gives the world's population to have been between 170 million and 400 million at the time Jesus was born. http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/worldhis.html

GeoHive: Global Statistics has compiled data from the US Government's The World Factbook to estimate a population of 6,790,062,216 as of July 2009 http://www.xist.org/earth/pop_region.aspx