Five Silent Nights (Plus One)

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Probably just about right now (or if not now, then within the next few hours), in Oberndorf, Austria, at Central European Standard time, many are or will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the very first time “Stille Nacht” was ever performed. The lyrics had been written a couple of years earlier by Father Joseph Mohr, while the music was composed by Franz Xaver Gruber, an organist and schoolmaster in a nearby village, for the Christmas Eve services Mohr would be conducting on December 24, 1818. Legend has it the organ was broken, and so Mohr asked for the composition to be for two solo voices, with guitar accompaniment, but the truth of that story is unknown. What is known is that John Denver was right–this song has become, very simply, “the most beloved of all Christmas carols.” Here are five versions that matter a great deal to me.

Low’s very traditional version is reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel’s approach in “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night,” but I think it’s better to let the song speak for itself, rather than enlisting it into a rather unsubtle ironic statement, however earnestly meant.

I can’t speak much German anymore–never could speak very much in the first place, really; I only had to get to the point where I could do some reading and translating during graduate school. But Melissa and I both have long agreed upon our affection for the carol’s original German lyrics, and why not hear them sung by the Wiener Sängerknaben (the Vienna Boys Choir)? “Christ in deiner Geburt!” indeed.

A beautiful contemporary version by Sinéad O’Connor, recorded in 1991. There was a weird video made along with it, which strikes me as having been part of some long-forgotten Christmas special or public service announcement; much better is this live version where O’Connor performs the song with the English group Westlife, and her quiet humor and deep Irish brogue are on full display.

I came late to gospel in my life, unfortunately. But now, sometimes, I really need it–and that means I need Mahalia Jackson. So do you.

My sentimental favorite is the recording by Mannheim Steamroller, which delicately, hauntingly, and brilliantly turned Stille Nacht into a song about winter’s silences, and in particular about those glimmers of light–dare I say grace?–that come to us, comforting us, on dark winter nights. I first started listening to this version late on Christmas Eves many years ago, and when Advent comes to its conclusion, I still seek it out. I also decided long ago that the bells that quietly come in at the very, very end is, of course, Santa (who is real, by the way) arriving on his sleigh. Listen for yourself. I’m not wrong.

Have wonderful night tonight, everyone. And a wonderful Christmas tomorrow.

(Oh, all right: let’s get John Denver and the Muppets in here too.)


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Merry Christmas, Russell!

  2. nobody, really says:

    I was able to perform this, along with my daughter, in an ensemble of about 50 tubas on Saturday. There is nothing quite like being able to drop the Tuba II part an octave so there are true “pedal” tones, a low rumble under the simple melody – everything so low it never enters the bass clef staff. It turns this hymn into something felt as well as heard, a thud in the stomach and sensation behind the ears. The hymn was written in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, so something “silent” would have been a blessing indeed. And the point is that Christ Himself shares that silence and peace with us.

  3. To this day, whenever I hear an instrumental version of Silent Night, the lyrics in my head are in Japanese.

    “sukui no miko wa mihaha no mune ni nemuritamou, yume yasuku”

  4. Thanks, Russell. Merry Christmas.
    One of the Church cultural experiences I treasure is that almost any time any place we can and do sing Silent Night together in five or six languages.

  5. Mannheim Steamroller’s Silent Night driving thru the Four Corners area at 5 am headed to Utah for Christmas. Magical!

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