The promise of a new life
“Silent Night,” a lullaby in the guise of a Christmas carol, has been bringing people together ever since. Originally written (in 1818, by the German composer Franz Xaver Gruber) as an upbeat dance, it’s the slower version—today’s contemplative and reverent ballad—that has claimed its place across cultures. “Silent Night” has been translated into 140 languages. It is the third-best-selling single of all time. In 2011, UNESCO declared it intangible cultural heritage.
That’s because “Silent Night,” more than most Christmas songs—more than most holiday songs—carries a quiet kind of universality. The tune is simple but not in a simplistic way, eloquent and elegant and evocative. It lends itself especially well, as perhaps those war-weary soldiers realized a century ago, to harmonizing. (“Silent Night” is often sung as a round “Night of Silence,” to gorgeous effect.)
And its lyrics, too, are broadly relatable. They describe a common tableau: a new mother, a new child, the peaceful quietude of them first getting to know each other. “Silent Night” is the crèche, made flesh through music. It might be a religious song, but it is also one that describes that most essential and universal of things: the tenderness, and the promise, of a new life.