The words began 200 years ago. They continue to whisper today.
Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright …
It’s the quietest of Christmas carols and perhaps the best-loved. Simple and pure, there’s almost no way to do it wrong. Whether it’s being sung by a single voice on a street corner, a massive choir on stage, or an old recording of John Denver and the Muppets, the heart comes through, tender and mild, warm and unforgettable.
As you might guess, I’ve got a soft spot for this one, and not just because it was the first carol I would whisper to myself as a kid after going to bed on Christmas Eve. (When you’re a child at Christmas, you stay awake however you can, and for me, that meant quietly pouring out every verse of every Christmas song and carol I had ever learned.) It’s a song born of need, a simple tune against a troubled moment.
The story that’s often told, though never quite verified, is that Father Joseph Mohr asked his friend Franz Gruber to set a poem of his to music for voice and guitar, since the church’s organ was broken and couldn’t be repaired in time for the Christmas Eve mass. What is known is that when Mohr’s poem and Gruber’s tune were created in 1818, they came at a truly dark time for Austria.
Writer Dave Heller of Florida State University notes that just two years before, in 1816, the eruption of Mount Tambora had created the “Year Without a Summer” – plunging temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere caused by the massive amounts of material ejected into the atmosphere, killing crops and herds and kicking off the worst famine of the 19th century. Add to that the devastation of the recently-ended Napoleonic Wars, and Austria – like much of Europe – was in dire straits.
Mohr wrote the poem in the midst of that. Gruber created his music in 1818, when it was still fresh. And somehow, the simple song has endured long after the memory of war and starvation has faded.
In a time of grief, it became a lasting song of joy.
That may seem a strange word to choose. Of all the Advent virtues, “Silent Night” is usually most associated with peace, and that’s not wrong. The notes rock and cradle the listener, a moment of calm in a turbulent world. It doesn’t shout with exultation like “Joy to the World,” or march with purpose like “God Rest, Ye Merry Gentlemen,” or run a treadmill in your brain until you scream like “The Little Drummer Boy.”
But there’s more to joy than smiles and excitement. Joy isn’t dependent on circumstance. It does what it can with what it has. If what it has is a broken organ, it reaches for a guitar and a voice to create its beauty. If what it has is a land and a world that’s become shell-shocked, it finds the tools of quiet, comfort and reassurance to lift spirits up.
It can be the bonfire against the sky – but it’s also the candle in the night. The pinpoints of colored light in the cold of winter. The song where no song should be.
And whether it’s 1818 or 2018, it’s still something that gives strength to the wounded spirit. And to a weary world.
We still need that sort of quiet joy. Maybe to face a holiday with an empty chair at the table. Maybe to survive a world still torn by anger and fear. Maybe just to keep it together for one more moment, one more step, when life is tired and at its lowest.
One more time. It’s still there. Even in the darkness.
All is calm. All is bright.
And at the end of a silent night, morning waits on the other side.