I love Christmas music. I especially love songs that make me imagine what Christmas is like in other places. My top places to imagine spending Christmas have always been New York City, London, Paris, some enchanting village in Ireland or Germany, and more recently, I found out that Strasbourg, France, has a very famous Christmas market. these are all pretty exotic places, and I may well spend Christmas in some of them as a tourist in the future. But they will never be mine. My own hometown suffers from a relative lack of charm, so that may contribute to my desire to see Christmases elsewhere. The city I live in now that I’m grown has much more “curb appeal” because we have the gorgeous backdrop of the Rocky Mountains, but it is still neither a quaint French village nor a beautiful bustling city.
“We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.”
Two hundred years ago, on a cold Christmas Eve in 1818, Silent Night was sung for the very first time at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Oberndorf, Austria. As the daughter of a church organist, I remember how hymn numbers used to arrive at the last minute and Mum would dash off to the piano to practice. However, it never crossed my mind that Silent Night, one of the world’s greatest Christmas carols, was also thrown together at the last minute. Or, that the words and music were written by virtual unknowns far removed from world stage. Well, of course, there was no: “Austria’s Got Talent 1818” and Silent Nightinitially spread much more organically. Within a few years, arrangements of the carol appeared in churches in the Salzburg Archdiocese and folk singers from the Ziller Valley spread the composition throughout Europe.
The Genesis of Silent Night
On a cold Christmas Eve in 1818, Josef Mohr needed a carol for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. With only a few hours to spare, he walked the three kilometres from his home in Oberndorf bei Salzburg to visit his friend Franz Xaver Gruber in the neighbouring town of Arnsdorf bei Laufen. Mohr had brought along a poem he’d written about two years ago, and was hoping Gruber, a school teacher who also served as the church’s choir master and organist, could set it to music.. Gruber composed the melody for Mohr’s “Stille Nacht” in just a few hours and the song was sung at Midnight Mass in a simple arrangement for guitar and choir.
The German and English lyrics:
Young’s English lyrics
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schläft; einsam wacht Nur das traute hochheilige Paar. Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar, Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh! Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Hirten erst kundgemacht Durch der Engel Halleluja, Tönt es laut von fern und nah: Christ, der Retter ist da! Christ, der Retter ist da!
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht Lieb’ aus deinem göttlichen Mund, Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund’. Christ, in deiner Geburt! Christ, in deiner Geburt!
Silent night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright Round yon virgin mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild, Sleep in heavenly peace, Sleep in heavenly peace.
Silent night, holy night, Shepherds quake at the sight; Glories stream from heaven afar, Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia! Christ the Savior is born, Christ the Savior is born!
Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light; Radiant beams from thy holy face With the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.
However, I didn’t know it was the song’s 200th’s anniversary when I decided to write about Silent Night. Rather, I wanted to share a treasured family experience of Silent Night, which dates back to the 1950s and 60s when my grandfather, Pastor Bert Haebich, was the minister at St John’s Lutheran Church in Wollongong, located just South of Sydney, Australia.
Every Christmas Eve, the Church held its annual Christmas Tree service, where the children would dress up as Mary and Joseph, angels and shepherds and re-enact the Christmas story. However, what made their service particularly special, was that everyone sang Silent Night in their own language at the end of the service, something which unified this diverse group of immigrants, while reminding them of home and acknowledging their origins.
“Humanity is forever involved in two conflicting currents, the one tending towards unification, and the other towards the maintenance or restoration of diversity…In different spheres and at different levels, both currents are in truth two aspects of the same process.”
Claude Levi Strauss
It says a lot that this was a small congregation of around 166 communicant members (1956) who spoke over 20 different languages, but only included around thirty Australians. Evidently, this congregation was a cultural melting pot and a veritable “United Nations”. It also lacked the stability and community networks you find in more established communities. Indeed, these people had literally been thrown together under often very difficult circumstances, and many were refugees who’d arrived in Australia with nothing but the clothes on their backs and had to start over. Moreover, there weren’t the social services in place to help these immigrants deal with their challenges. That fell to the local communities and in particular, the churches including my grandparents and the family. All they had was their shared faith to glue them together.
My grandparents always reflected fondly on their time in Wollongong and made many life-long friends there. However, as soon as you try to walk in their shoes, you realize that with all this cultural diversity, it must’ve been very difficult trying to pull everyone together. Perhaps, this need for unity explains why the Ladies Guild produced a cookbook: Around the World With Cooking. The introduction includes an: Around the World Recipe and these wishes, which could well have been written by my late grandmother: “Perhaps these culinary customs will inspire those who use them to appreciate and understand their world-wide neighbours just a little better”.
So, as you could imagine, for all these displaced people, being able to sing Silent Nightin their own language must have meant the world and brought more than a tear to the eye. Grateful perhaps to be where they were, but also missing the good times and loved ones they’d lost or left behind.
On a personal note, both my grandparents were something like third generation Australians. Yet, although many of my grandfather’s ancestors had been among the first Germans to arrive in South Australia in 1838, these families had settled around Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills and maintained their German language and culture while remaining staunch Lutherans. It was only following the outbreak of WWI, that Hahndorf changed its name temporarily to Ambleside and it was no coincidence that the Principal of the local public school also changed his name. My grandfather was bi-lingual and would intersperse German words throughout everyday conversation. Consequently, I have always known Silent Nightby both its English and German titles, although that’s about as far as my knowledge of the German version went.
However, I don’t recall ever experiencing hearing Silent Night sung like this growing up in Sydney. Every Christmas Eve, our family also took part in the annual Christmas Tree Service at Church. Roles were assigned and we practiced at Sunday School in the weeks leading up to the big night. Every year, was pretty much the same and much to my disappointment, I never managed to secure the role of Mary and hold the baby Jesus. Rather, we’d cut up a sheet, sew it up the sides and I’d be an angel while my brother was a shepherd. That was except for the year I rebelled. I was sick of being an angel, and joined the shepherds instead. In hindsight, this was akin to Mutiny on the Bounty, but didn’t seem to raise any eyebrows. That was back in the 1970s.
Attending Church on Christmas Eve is still something we do as a family. When our kids were younger, they used to do the whole nativity thing. However, as teenagers, they’ve outgrown that and it can also be quite difficult to find a local Church who still dresses up. Some of the churches don’t have a lot of kids either.
For me personally, Silent Night is a Christmas carol which has withstood the test of time and remains close to my heart. More than any other Christmas carol, it engenders that sense of peace we experience at times as Christians but also our desire for peace in our world and also in our homes.
However, as I’ve “grown up”, I’ve come to understand that Christmas Day can be silent for other reasons. Or, on the other hand, rather explosive. Yet, I personally don’t want to give up on Christmas or on Silent Night. Indeed, another age-old Christmas tradition is to revisit some of these frayed relationships, and to try and forge a different course for the New Year.
After all, Christmas is a time of miracles and we need to keep believing.
Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year!
Rowena Curtin launched herself as a poet back in the 1980s and 90s at the University of Sydney and read her poetry at Gleebooks, local festivals and the unforgettable Reasonably Good Cafe. Just before leaving for Europe in 1992, she hit the photocopier, self-publishing her anthology: Locked inside An Inner Labyrinth, which found its way into her backpack. Against the odds, this young 22 year old managed to get past the astute eye of proprietor George Whitman, who gave Rowena her first solo reading at the famous Shakespeare Bookshop in Paris, where the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Anais Nin used to hang out. After returning to Australia, the corporate life beckoned until a series of health issues and disability issues struck home and the pen emerged mightier than every storm or challenge which has crossed her path. Rowena has been blogging at https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/since 2012 and has a few manuscripts in the bottom drawer, while mastering the fine art of procrastination and avoidance…something to tackle in the New Year.
Mutiny on the Bounty. BrE. the name of two films about a famous historical incident which occurred in 1789. The sailors on the British ship HMS Bounty took control of it by force and put the captain and some senior officers in a small boat on the open sea.