As Christmas nears each year, eventually the boisterous jollity of the season fades and the need for silence rises, and as we all adjourn from our daily lives to the sequestered comfort of our home (or, at least, so we hope), we look inward. I know that I do as the outside world fades away. I think this sentiment was captured wonderfully by Bill Watterson in this one-panel installment of Calvin and Hobbes:
Musically, this brings me to Silent Night, one of the most magical of all Christmas carols. It was written in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber, who was given the words by a local priest who needed a Christmas carol that could be accompanied by guitar as the organ in his church had been damaged by flooding. What resulted is one of the most enduring of all Western songs.
What makes Silent Night so effective? Well, the lyrics are quite wonderful and evocative, painting word-pictures of the miracle taking place in Bethlehem and exhorting us to sleep in peace before we wake to the new dawn, heralded by the birth of God’s son. But it’s not just the words. Those lyrics are wedded to a melody that almost perfectly captures the song’s dual themes of restful peace in the face of a transcendent miracle. Silent Night combines falling intervals, especially the minor third which seems to eternally connote motherhood and the protection of rest at home, with upward leaps and climbs that musically challenge us to see the light dawning in that manger. That’s how I see it, anyway. Just the way the tune of Silent Night unfolds speaks to something primal, something hard-wired in us.
Here is Sinead O’Connor performing Silent Night.