In how many churches this Christmas Eve will "Silent Night" be the emotional climax of the service? This little carol is something very special.
Unorthodox at its creation, “Silent Night” was first performed on guitar in a village church in Oberndorf, Austria, on Christmas Eve, 1818, outpacing by about 150 years the whole hippie-folk-instruments-in-church thing of late 20th-century America. There’s an old story about it being written as a last-minute substitute because of a broken church organ, but that neat little tale is probably not quite true.
There aren’t many songs, of any kind, that are simpler than "Silent Night." It’s a lullaby, with a gentle 6/8 lilt; it’s a true three-chord wonder; its melody is all on the scale – no accidentals. And yet, it does have a trick. The range of “Silent Night” is an octave and a fourth – just one note less than "The Star-Spangled Banner." While the national anthem has a reputation of being difficult to sing, nobody ever complains about “Silent Night,” but untrained voices are often stretched by it on one end or the other. You’ll notice it now, if you haven’t before.
Lots of Christmas songs, secular and sacred, are set in winter or describe wintertime scenes. On the other hand, the English lyrics to “Silent Night,” (the translation is credited to John Freeman Young) make no mention of cold or snow. And perhaps therein lies the key to the power of “Silent Night.”
“Silent Night” isn’t nostalgic. It doesn’t look backward, as so many Christmas songs do. Except for the quick mention of quaking shepherds, it doesn’t even depict an ancient world. “Silent Night” is set in the present. Wherever, whenever you sing “Silent Night,” the miracle of Christmas is happening now. That’s why congregations return to it again and again, year after year. It’s as brand-new and miraculous as... the birth of a child.
My favorite “Silent Night” experiences of Christmases Past include an exquisite setting on organ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine some years ago; I don’t know if Dorothy Papadakos or Paul Halley played it, but it was extraordinary. I’ve sung “Stille Nacht,” the original German lyrics, at Old First Reformed Church in Park Slope. And for many years in my hometown church in Nebraska, the lights were lowered and the candles were lit as we sang “Silent Night” accompanied by, of all things, a gently, richly, quietly rolling marimba. (You weren’t expecting a marimba, I know. But it’s true. Get a marimba for “Silent Night” at your church next year, and you’ll see what I mean.)
What’s the best version of “Silent Night” you've been a part of?