far the most beloved and sung of all Western Christmas carols is Silent Night. It will be sung tonight at Catholic midnight masses, candlelight services like the Tree of Life’s virtual one on Zoom, by hardy carolers in neighborhood
streets, in many versions on Holiday
radio, and in family rooms
around the Christmas tree.
hundred and two years ago Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht was first
performed at St. Nicholas parish church in the village Oberndorf on the Salzach River in the Austrian
Empire. Today Silent Night is by far the most popular traditional Christmas carol
in the English speaking world, and
has been translated from the original German into more than 140
languages. It has been recorded by choirs, orchestras, and solo musicians in every possible genre
but Bing Crosby’s 1935 version is the bestselling solo rendition of all time.
young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, wrote a poem
in 1816 at Mariapfarr, the hometown
of his father in the Salzburg Lungau
region. Two years later he had been
posted as parish priest to the
Oberndorf. Circumstances of the creation
of the song are hazy but the commonly
told story goes like this.
was in need of a song for his Christmas
Eve mass, but the church organ
was damaged by a flood. He needed something simple that could be sung
to his guitar. He thought of his poem and asked his organist
Franz Xaver Gruber to set it to
music. The result was a lovely, simple
tune that was easy to sing and was more of a lullaby to the infant Jesus
than the triumphant announcement carols commonly
sung on Christmas Eve.
song charmed Karl Mauracher, an organ builder who serviced the
instrument at the Oberndorf church, who copied the song and introduced it to
two travelling families of folk singers, the Strassers and the Rainers
who were singing it in their shows in 1819.
The Rainers once performed the song for audience that included Emperor Franz I of Austria and Czar Alexander I
of Russia. They also introduced the song to America
in an 1839 concert in New York City.
first edition of the song was published by Friese in 1833 in a collection of Four Genuine Tyrolean Songs.
song was already beloved in the German speaking countries and was spreading
across Europe. Although Gruber was generally acknowledged as composer some people
could not believe it could have been written by such a rustic provincial and attributed
it variously to Haydn, Mozart,
or Beethoven. Mohr’s role as lyricist was largely forgotten outside stories told around
Oberndorf. But in 1995 a manuscript by Gruber dating to around
1820 was discovered and authenticated confirming Mohr as the
1859, the Episcopal priest John Freeman
Young of Trinity Church in New York City, wrote and published the English translation that is most
frequently sung today, translated from three of Mohr's original six
verses. His version of the melody varied
slightly from Gruber’s original. Soon
the song was as popular in English speaking countries as it was in German.
Us Be That Stable was inspired by traditional nativity scenes in art and
family crèches. It was first read at a Christmas Eve service at the old Congregational Unitarian Church in Woodstock more than 20 years ago and
was included in my 2004 collection of poetry, We Build Temples in the Heart. It is my most widely reproduced poem and has frequently been used in Unitarian Universalist and other worships settings since and us often
used with the singing of Silent Night
Let Us Be That Stable
Today, let us be that stable
Let us be the place
that welcomes at last
the weary and rejected,
the pilgrim stranger,
the coming life.
Let not the frigid winds that pierce
our inadequate walls,
or our mildewed hay,
or the fetid leavings of our cattle
shame us from our beckoning.
Let our outstretched arms
be a manger
so that the infant hope,
swaddled in love,
may have a place to lie.
Let a cold beacon
shine down upon us
from a solstice sky
to guide to us
the seekers who will come.
Let the lowly Shepard
and all who abide
in the fields of their labors
lay down their crooks
and come to us.
Let the seers, sages, and potentates
of every land
traverse the shifting dunes
the rushing rivers,
and the stony crags
to seek our rude frame.
Let herdsmen and high lords
under our thatched roof
to lay their gifts
Today, let us be that stable.
so many wonderful renditions of Silent
Night in English and German, by choirs, a capela groups, bands and orchestras, and soloists that
it is hard to pick just one. So almost
at random, here is Celtic Women in their annual Christmas concert
recorded at The Helix in Dublin, Ireland in 2013.