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Stille Nacht: The English Translation

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Stille Nacht became a carol in 1818 when Franz Xaver Gruber added music to a six-stanza poem written by Joseph Mohr in 1816.

The German-language carol gained popularity throughout Europe in the early 19th century and then crossed to America with a traveling folk group, the Rainer Family Singers. The Rainers sang the Austrian carol at an 1839 concert at Trinity Church in New York City. Several decades later, an Episcopal priest at Trinity Church decided to create an English-language version of the carol. Rev. John Freeman Young (1820-1885) spent his spare time translating European hymns and carols. Surely, he had no idea his translation of “Stille Nacht” would become one of the most popular carols of all time. He translated just three verses – the first, second, and sixth.

In 1867, Rev. Young left New York for Jacksonville, Florida when he was appointed Episcopal Bishop of Florida, the second man to hold that office. He set aside his hymn hobby while traveling the length and breadth of the Florida wilderness on horseback, in stagecoach and carts, by steamer and sailboat, and very often on foot, starting Episcopal missions. He was stricken with pneumonia and died in November 1885. The funeral service was held at St. John’s, the future cathedral in Jacksonville, and he was laid to rest in the Old City Cemetery where he lies nearly forgotten by the city he loved and ignored by the church he served.

In December 2006, Douglas D. Anderson, a carol historian from Oregon, located the earliest known copy of Bishop Young’s translation. In 1859, it was published in New York in a 16-page booklet titled “Carols for Christmas Time.”

The “Silent Night” melody has changed from what Franz Gruber wrote 189 years ago. Some notes have been deleted and a few notes have been changed. In addition to the original guitar arrangement, Gruber wrote several other versions for organ and orchestra. You can get the sheet music for Gruber’s various arrangements at the Silent Night Museum in Oberndorf. In December 2006, the Silent Night Society published the three verses translated by John Young along with a new English translation of the other three verses.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. Silent night, holy night,
Here at last, healing light,
From the heavenly kingdom sent,
Abundant grace for our intent.
Jesus, salvation for all.
Jesus, salvation for all.

4. Silent night, holy night,
Sleeps the world in peace tonight.
God sends his Son to earth below,
A Child from whom all blessings flow.
Jesus embraces mankind.
Jesus embraces mankind.

5. Silent night, holy night,
Mindful of mankind’s plight,
The Lord in Heav’n on high decreed,
From earthly woes we would be freed.
Jesus, God’s promise for peace.
Jesus, God’s promise for peace.

6. 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.

(Bill Egan, a former U.S. Navy Journalist, has written about Christmas topics for publications around the world.)

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