All Is Calm, All Is Bright

 

Black Lives Matter protesters sang “Silent Night” outside the 4th Precinct cop shop in North Minneapolis the other night, which I took as a good and symbiotic sign of the times, as I’ve been contemplating the power of the almost 200-year-old song while walking the dog these mild and, yes, silent December nights.

As the world spins madly on and off its axis, I’ve been grateful for the early darkness and starlight, and seriously enjoying the crisp, clean air in my lungs and the sight of all those beautiful hearths and homes aglow with Christmas lights, candles, luminarias, and fireplaces. With each silent night stroll it occurs to me what a simple and healing thing it is to take a walk at night and to bear witness to a truly peaceful world and reality that’s as legitimate as any trumped-up version of what we’re being fed by our personal-political newsfeeds.

At some point along the way, all that stillness and my earbud- and music-free walks have inevitably inspired a solo humming of “Silent Night,” and last week I was moved enough by its intoxicating and enduring feeling of universal chill to convince a bunch of friends and strangers to sing it with me at the Mad Ripple Hootenanny and, well, I can’t recommend highly enough the sound of a roomful of voices raised up in that timeless prayer of peace, no matter what god you bow to.

“Silent Night” (German: “Stille Nacht”) was written as a poem by a young priest, Joseph Mohr, in 1818 in the small Austrian town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg at a time when Andrew Jackson was invading Florida during the first Seminole war, the Battle of Koregaen was raging in India, the Battle of Maipu was raging in Chile, the Battle of Kafir Qala was raging in Afghanistan, and prospects of world peace remained as utopian as they do now. Even still, there was hope — in one man’s heart, at least.

The afternoon of Christmas Eve 1818, Mohr brought his “Silent Night” poem to his friend, the schoolmaster and organist Franz Gruber, and asked Gruber to put music to his words. In three hours, Gruber penned the melody, and that night it was performed for the first time at midnight mass by Mohr on guitar with a choir at the St. Nikola parish church. Originally composed in polka-band worthy 6/8 time, in 1859 it was turned into the lullaby we now know it as by John Freeman Young, an Episcopal priest then serving at Trinity Church in New York City. 

The carol has been translated into 140 languages, and most famously sung simultaneously in English and German by American and German troops during the Christmas truce of 1914, an event that inspired plays and movies about the song’s bonding powers. Bing Crosby’s 1935 version of “Silent Night” is the third-biggest selling single in the world, and it has been recorded at least 733 times, including versions by Low, Sinead O’Connor, Taylor Swift, Peter Perrett, Al Green, Nick Lowe, Mariah Carey, Elvis Presley, the Temptations, Stevie Nicks, Etta James and many more.

Mohr’s most lasting contribution to the world was in concert with his life’s work, as a priest who served several parishes and who devoted his life to helping the elderly and the poor. A man for all times, in other words, especially these mad mean times, during which the prospect of a silent night all over the world still captures the imagination and bouys the soul. Everybody, now:

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

 

Silent night, holy night

Shepherds quake at the sight

Glories stream from heaven afar

Heavenly hosts sing alleluia

Christ the savior is born

Christ the savior is born

 

Silent night, holy night

Son of god, love’s pure light

Radiant beams from thy holy face

With the dawn of redeeming grace

Jesus Lord at thy birth

Jesus Lord at thy birth.

 

Silent night holy night

Wondrous star, lend thy light

With the angels let us sing

Alleluia to our king

Christ the savior is born

Christ the savior is born

 

 

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at jimwalsh086@gmail.com