I probably shouldn’t admit this, but “Silent Night” never really did anything for me. I know, I know – I sound like a Christmas Music Grinch, but there it is. For most of my life growing up, though, when Christmas rolled around at my church and we had to sing “Silent Night,” it seemed like it went on forever. The minister of music evidently thought that a slow tempo made music more holy. Consequently, when the choir performed “Silent Night” in the annual Christmas cantata, and the same lady soloist opened it with the first verse, she always had to take a breath in the middle of “virgin.” “Rooooooond yon virrrr – [giant sucking sound as lungs refilled] – gin, mo-o-o-o-o-ther and child . . .”
So, when I lived in Salzburg, Austria in the mid-70’s, I only went to Oberndorf to the chapel where Franz Gruber first played “Stille Nacht” because a real cute Italian girl had invited me to go with her. She’d heard me play guitar in the youth center where I worked in the Old City of Salzburg and thought I’d be interested to know that the first time “Silent Night” was performed, it was on guitar because mice had eaten through the organ bellows. I wasn’t sure what a “bellow” was, but the girl was bella, so along with a group of about 10 internationals, we went to what had become an annual event.
It was dark when we arrived in Oberndorf where Gruber had introduced the song in 1859. Our group stood outside the chapel on the snow covered ground with a crowd of about 150 other people. The priest, clad in a brown Franciscan cassock, strode out with a nylon string guitar. Tiny lights flickered in the tennenbaum trees surrounding the courtyard and the priest announced that we should all join in, singing in our own languages. And then he began playing.
Stille nacht/heilige nacht/ Alles schläft/einsam wacht
Beside me, the Italian girl sang.
Astro del ciel, Pargol divin/ mite Agnello Redentor!
My friend from Scotland sang in an impressive tenor,
Oidhche shàmhach, oidhche naomh/ cadal ciùin tha air an t-saogh’l
And I sang, “Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright . . .” I sang with tears forming on the rims of my eyes as breath from 150 human mouths and a couple dozen different cultures condensed in the winter chill and rose in a wispy cloud above us. We knew what all of us celebrated. It might have been the Christ Child and for many, I’m sure it was. But a celebration also rose in that cold place as a musical solidarity warmed us all. In a dozen different tongues, one voice filled up the night.
Now my favorite rendition of “Silent Night” is Mannheim Steamroller’s instrumental version. But even when I hear a church choir, or congregation, taking it slow, raising candles in a darkened sanctuary, and taking a breath in the middle of “vir-SUCK-gin,” I absolutely love the carol. Because I’m there in Oberndorf knowing that 150 others are thinking of that evening, and how the spirit of the music wove us into a beautiful tapestry of humanity. Indeed, with the angels, let us sing.