Silent Night – its meaning and importance today
The Christmas carol Silent Night, Holy Night was written and composed in the Age of Enlightenment. The song represents the calm and safety of Christmas and has stood as a global message of peace since it was first sung at mass in the St. Nikolaus Church of Oberndorf. The lyrics have changed somewhat since they were first written, but the importance of the song’s message should not be overlooked even today.
Christmas Carol “Silent Night, Holy Night” has a long tradition
It was a time of war, poverty and changing borders at the time the song was written. Like many others in this time, Joseph Mohr, the author of the text, also longed for peace and silence, an end to the conflict. That his desire for peace would reach the hearts of people all over the world is something he could not have known. But after he sang it with the composer Franz-Xaver Gruber in his home church, it became one of the most popular Christmas songs in the world. Today the song has been translated into over 300 languages, but its melody has remained the same. For the Inuit, native people of the Arctic, their version of the Christmas Carol is titled “Jutdlime Kimsugtut”. The popularity of the song is the result of a singular everlasting desire for peace on earth, for all people and nations. Even in times of relative peace, somewhere in the world there is always conflict. For this reason, people around the world will continue to pray for peace on Christmas Eve.
Significance of the lyrics for the people of its time
During the Advent period from 1816 to 1818, with borders having just recently been redefined, hunger, disease and military occupation plagued the land. The Ziller Valley had been torn between new sovereigns and residents were allowed an only gradual recovery from the earlier tumults. For residents, the church was not only a place of prayer but also a community meeting place. They came to the church every Christmas to pray for even a few days of peace. This gathering was a centuries-old tradition in Oberndorf as much as it was in the Catholic region of the Ziller Valley. The year the song was first performed, the longing for recovery and better times was particularly strong. The words of the priest combined with that simple, catchy melody seemed to touch their souls. At that time, it was the job of the parish priest to find words which reflected the needs, desires and concerns of his parishioners. The people gathered together that Christmas Eve to share their longing for peace and to reaffirm their faith that a better future was coming.
Translations on various continents
The German version of the song Silent Night contains six verses. In many places only three of them are sung, however. In other languages, the length of the song varies between three and six verses. For example, in England there are six verses, but in the Netherlands only four. The Japanese strike up their three verses of the song with Kiyoshi “kono yoru hoshi wa hikari”. In Italy as well only three verses are sung. The Hungarians have the shortest version, “Csendes az Ej”, which ends after the single verse “Almod aldottt legyen”. It’s not the length, but the importance the song’s message holds for people in over 300 countries around the world that makes this song remarkable. In Christian nations especially, the hope for liberation from sin lives on. Our deepest desires personified in a single child, announced the Messiah and Saviour who has finally arrived, and Silent Night, a song of joy, is sung.
Induction of Silent Night into the UNESCO Cultural Heritage
UNESCO runs a World Heritage Committee for the preservation of cultural assets. Members of this committee are charged with examining and recognizing impressive human achievements of both a material and non-material nature. The committee recognised the song as one of Austria’s great non-tangible cultural heritages. Non-tangible describes forms of human expression such as language and song, which is passed on from their creation to the next generation. Changes and variations of a single thing are permissible, as long as the original definition of the cultural property is preserved. Silent Night meets these criteria. It was translated, its melody changed, it was printed in songbooks and adapted in classical as well as in pop music. Feature films and documentaries have taken inspiration from its origin, content and meaning. It’s hard to imagine any Christmas film, regardless of country, that doesn’t at least feature the song’s melody somewhere.
How the song represents the “spirit of Christmas” today
The changing demands of the times are leading to an increasingly hectic life in modern industrial nations. Day to day habits are as fleeting and changing as the Internet itself. Most people hardly have time for silence, let alone inner peace. Even during the Advent season there is incredible pressure to make the Holy Night into a one-of-a-kind celebration. In the face of this pressure Silent Night reveals itself as more than a wish for peace at Christmas, but a wish for peace in every family and every single person. People living in developing nations have completely different problems than most of us, for example. They struggle every day, often just to survive. When they sing the song, theirs is a prayer for “simple” gifts such as enough food, a roof over their heads and good health. Many of the poorest countries are also plagued by natural disasters. The people there pray that Jesus Christ will usher in better, quieter times free from the ravages of nature.
Song meaning against the background of wars and political unrest
In most war zones, Christmas is neither a quiet nor a sacred time to the warring parties. Still, some armies have been known to let their weapons rest in celebration of Christmas, if only for a single special night. But even in those times, emergency services are on duty, caring for the injured and others affected by the war. Amidst all the uncertainty, civilians are simply trying to find a place to rest, without the fear for life and limb looming over their every waking hour. Even under these circumstances, people meet on Christmas Eve and sing Silent Night together. The song is sung not only to wish for the peace that the new-born Messiah is to bring, but also to unite in defiance of the difficult circumstances. The knowledge that the same verses containing the same heartfelt wishes can be sung by many different people around the world at the same time is tremendously inspiring. “Jesus promised the peoples of the world” and “Save the world” are messages of peace that have been spoken since long before the song was composed. The terrors of war give rise to the hope that one day Jesus, the Saviour will come again
200 years after the song was written, world peace has still not been achieved. But as long as the song continues to be sung, it’s certain that the hope for peace is still alive.
Conception of Christmas in times of peace
Wars and political unrest are not the only troubles plaguing mankind. In these quiet times, even people in what are in fact peaceful industrial nations can find a much-needed rest. Many families traditionally only see each other one day of the year, while others spend Christmas Eve completely alone: Perhaps there’s a lot to do at work right now, despite the Christmas season. At times, the lifestyle of peaceful countries can be so hectic that this Christmas song seems like a haven. For Christians, meeting at the church can serve as an escape from the tumult of everyday life. If only for a few hours, the only thing that matters is your own inner peace.
In some countries, Christmas is peak season for natural disasters; it’s not unusual for Christians in these regions to sing a certain well-known Christmas carol in hopes of calmer weather in the future.
Importance beyond the church
Church songs are usually sung by the church choir or church-goers, but this song is different. Silent Night is sung everywhere: at home under the Christmas tree, on the street and on stages. Even those who do not believe in salvation through a heavenly Saviour can identify with the overall message of the song: long-lasting rest, perhaps the memory of better times – the reasons are often very personal in nature.
In the end, it would be wonderful if the people of the world could find a way to live together in peace as the song suggests. Silent Night has had its melody and theme adapted by both the public and commercial sector and is well-known to even those without a background in religion. Guests who hear “Silent Night” playing know that they will have at least a few days of rest and relaxation ahead of them. That even non-Christians sing Silent Night shows that the peace humanity has been striving for is not merely a dream. The song connects all those who wish for peace.
The original text for Silent Night stands for the deep longing for peace, so it is not surprising that 200 years later the song is still sung on Christmas Eve in over 300 languages. Whether in the political or personal sense, every year Christians and non-Christians alike come together to pray for peace.