December 24, 2012 - Anniversary of the First Performance of “Silent Night”

“Silent night...holy night...
All is calm...all is bright...”

There are lots of stories about the history of the Christmas song “Silent Night.” Apparently, some of them are not true—and in a situation like that, it can be hard to sort out fact and fiction. But we do know that this song was first performed on Christmas Eve in 1818.

And it was performed in German!

I always find it interesting when a poem with rhymes turns out to be merely the translation of a poem written—with rhymes!—in another language. Clearly, just because “night” and “bright” (for example) rhyme in English, it doesn't follow that the German words for these things rhyme. Indeed, “nacht” and “hell” are the German words for “night” and “bright.” Not only do they not rhyme, “hell” doesn't appear anywhere in the German (original) lyrics of “Silent Night.”

The translator of a song or rhyming poem must search for synonyms or other words that rhyme and pretty much paint the same sort of picture. Here is the song in German, followed by a literal translation in English:

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!

Silent night, holy night,
All is sleeping, alone watches
Only the close, most holy couple.
Blessed boy in curly hair,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!

And here is the familiar English version many of us know and love:

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!

The history of the carol...

On December 23, 1818, a young priest named Father Mohr went to schoolmaster Franz Gruber and asked him to compose a melody that could be played on a guitar, to go along with a poem he had written a few years before. It may be that the church's organ was broken and Father Mohr needed a Christmas hymn composed for guitar—or it may be that he just wanted a new song and liked guitar accompaniment. Whatever the motivation for the request, Father Mohr and Herr Gruber performed the new song together on Christmas Eve, and the simple song grew in popularity until it became a widespread Christmas carol.

So widespread that it has been translated into about 140 languages! It would be interesting to check out the variations, wouldn't it?

For more about Christmas Eve, check out this earlier post

Also on this date:

Yap Constitution Day in Micronesia

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