The English Words to Silent Night

You can make a lot of money writing a Christmas carol these days, and in the twentieth century, people did, notably Irving Berlin (White Christmas) and Johnny Marks (Rudolf), to name just two. Prior to that, people just wrote them because that’s what they liked doing.

country chapelTime, then, to give a shout out to the early carol creators: dear old Isaac Watt who, along with American banker Lowell Mason, gave us Joy to the World; Cecil Frances Humphreys, the lady who batted out a trio of much-loved childrens’ hymns that included Once in Royal David’s City; insurance broker William Chatterton Dix (As with Gladness, What Child is This?); and scholar John Mason Neale, who drew from a collection of medieval Finnish spring songs to produce Good Christian Men, Rejoice and Good King Wenceslas.

It was a quartet of American ministers who kicked the carol-writing business into high gear: John Henry Hopkins (We Three Kings), E.H. Sears (It Came Upon the Midnight Clear), Phillips Brooks (O Little Town of Bethlehem) and J. Freeman Young (Silent Night).

Wait a minute—Silent Night isn’t an American carol. All the world knows it was written by a couple of Austrians, Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber, in 1818. Young’s words weren’t to see daylight until 1863.

Nevertheless, it is those English words that propelled the little hymn to the top echelon of favorite carols.

How do we know this? Simple. Silent Night did well in the United States but never gained traction in England, although it was translated many times. Here’s a sampling of 19th Century opening lines (drawn from John Julian’s A Dictionary of Hymnology):

  • Holy night! Peaceful night! All is dark . . .
  • Silent night! Hallowed night! Land and deep . . .
  • Holy night! Peaceful night! Through the darkness . . .
  • Peaceful night, all things Sleep.
  • Silent night, holiest night. All asleep
  • Still the night, holy the night! Sleeps the world . . .
  • Silent night, holiest night! Moonbeams . . .
  • Silent night! Holy night! Slumber reigns . . .

Young’s words have a simplicity and depth of conviction that wins over even the most jaded listener. True, the music helps,simple and affecting as it is. And the story of the carol’s creation is wonderful. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that just anyone could have translated it. “Stille nacht, heidige nacht” may seem dead obvious to us today. But it wasn’t then, as the above examples show. The Reverend Young’s words illustrate as well as anything the gulf between the workmanlike and the work of art.

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,
Heav’nly 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 limped along in England until World War II, when American GIs brought over Young’s version. Its popularity was probably helped along by Bing Crosby, who, along with Gene Autry, had a corner on the carol market back in the 1940s. But make no mistake. He was working with pure gold to begin with.

The Land of Moose and Cattle

mooseI saw moose everywhere on my journey last August through western Canada. Moose, elk, deer, bear. I saw them all—on signs. Lots and lots of warning signs, the most unnerving of which was “Watch for moose next 65 km” followed seconds later by “Moose next 2 km.” They never materialized. Not once during my 4,000 km journey did I see a live moose. Nor any other wildlife except for a herd of goats by the roadside in Lake Louise.

Dead wildlife, however, was another matter. When roadkill is larger than a rat or a rabbit it’s not only messy but painful to see and I worried for miles whether that deer, coyote, dog or muskrat lying by the roadside had died quickly and painlessly.

As for other living things, I saw far fewer cattle than expected, and most of them in Alberta. The Caribou-Chilcotin region of central BC (aka “cattle country”) had as many camels as cattle, which is to say, none. A Williams Lake resident assured me there are plenty around. They had probably been out of sight, somewhere in the shade, he said, which made sense: the temperature was around 33 Celsius. And in Saskatchewan I felt and saw plenty of bugs, especially dragon flies.

In northern BC, long, empty highways wound through wonderful uplands, vast tracts of grass already hayed.  Pines, cottonwood and aspen lined the roads, and mile upon mile of wild flowers: fireweed and Indian paintbrush and profuse yellow flowers that might have been buttercups or dandelions or something else entirely; I didn’t stop to find out.

I live in southern British Columbia, in one of the richest dairy-farming valleys in the world. But hundreds of miles to the north, the country of the Peace River looked every bit as verdant. If I were a cow, I believe I’d be quite content there.

Books I’ve been reading

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I may be a little stingy with the stars for this story, and that could be because I did some long-distance walking myself once, and found myself questioning one or two details of Harold’s walk. But that’s really a side issue. It’s a nice story, some of the descriptive passages about the English countryside were very good and my favorite part was actually the last section about Queenie. But overall, I don’t know, I found something a little contrived about it.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the UniverseAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a fine piece of writing, the story of two fifteen-year-old boys over two years of their lives. Introvert Ari, the narrator, and extrovert Dante meet at the swimming pool one El Paso summer and become friends. Ari battles not being able to talk to his dad and resentment that no one will talk to him about his older brother, serving time. Dante seems to have no problems.

The friendship strengthens and survives separation as Dante moves north with his family for a year.

The families are strong in this book and I liked both of them. The boys are loved and supported and Ari’s first-person point of view is completely plausible. This is another in the growing list of Young Adult novels that can be read and enjoyed by anyone.


Why my books aren’t longer

I came to fiction writing much too late, and only after I’d mastered a technique that earned me a good living as a nonfiction editor and writer, but which was absolutely disastrous to a would-be novelist. It was this: for any piece of prescriptive writing—speech, presentation, brochure, anything where persuasion is involved, which means most business communications—a three-paragraph introduction works best.

This technique was developed by McKinsey consultant Barbara Minto, and, as I say, I clutched it to my bosom and made a lot of money with it.

The three-para intro starts with “As you know” and while its content is strictly business, its construction is rooted in Hollywood tradition: situation, complication, solution. Or in film terms, boy meets girl, boy loses girl to rival, boy wins girl back with intrepid action. In three paragraphs.

Bear in mind, this is only the introduction. It is designed to get the audience on the same page as the presenter. (You’d be surprised how hard this can be: everyone comes to a meeting with other things on their minds, and perhaps with built-in disagreement to the proposal under consideration.) The three-para intro defines a small space where everyone is in agreement, and goes on from there.

It works like this. Let’s suppose your company builds sewage plants. You’re bidding on one. Your presentation to the town’s council starts as follows:

  1. As you know, your present facilities are too small for your population.
  2. However, you haven’t the funds to build a Truly Huge plant, which would serve your community for generations or even centuries to come. Instead, you propose to build a medium-sized facility which will become inadequate in ten years.
  3. Here’s what we propose instead: a Truly Huge plant using our proprietory technology, at a price you can afford. Let me show you how.

You have their attention and can devote your presentation to the steps that will enable you to deliver what they want.

Now why, you ask, was this such a terrible thing for me to learn? Because it taught me the story should be over in three paragraphs. As soon as I reach paragraph four, I start to get twitchy. I feel I’ve stayed too long at the fair. I worry about boring the reader. And once I’m mired in the complexities of Act Two (all fiction has an Act Two, not just plays), I’m terrified that I’ve lost them. At that point my instinct is to abandon ship: to say “Okay, okay, here’s how it ends, sorry I took so long.”

I’ve spent the past twenty years trying to forget the three-para intro. I’m learning (slowly) to trust the plot. I’ve learned to build in lots of complications that have to be worked out before the problem resolves. I’ve learned to stop worrying about being boring.

But for anyone who asks why my books aren’t longer, that’s the reason. If I ever write a doorstopper, you’ll know I’ve shaken the past from my feet, ground it under my heel, climbed out from beneath the rubble and so forth, and moved on.

It would help enormously if, like Dickens and others, I were paid by the word. I could do a lot of shaking under those terms.