By Berit Jany, member of Boulder Mennonite Church
As the sanctuary is darkened and the candles bring light and warmth into this spiritual space, the congregation starts singing the familiar words of “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!“ Everyone sings the first verse in the German original: “Alles schläft; einsam wacht Nur das traute heilige Paar. Holder Knab im lockigten Haar, Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh! Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!“ The beloved Austrian carol with its bicentennial history evokes stillness and holiness of the night of Christ’s birth. Its tune and text bring back memories of childhood Christmases.
Except that the text sung does not correspond to the childhood memories of a few members of the congregation. They have grown up singing the first verse with following words: “Nur das heilige Elternpaar, Das im Stalle zu Bethlehem war. Bei dem himmlischen Kind”. One might wonder: Where do the alternative lyrics originate and how did they enter the Mennonite choral world? The original song text was written as a six-verse poem by the Austrian priest Joseph Mohr in 1816 (and put into music two years later by the organist Franz X. Gruber). These are the lyrics that are commonly sung and printed in hymnals and song books.
The Austrian ‘Stille Nacht’ researcher, Martin Reiter, recently discovered the earliest printing of this popular German carol in America. ‘Stille Nacht’ with alternative lyrics was first published in the 1840 Liederbuch für die Jugend [songbook for youth] by the American Tract Society, an evangelical organization with the purpose of giving Christian literature. To promote Christian knowledge among disadvantaged children across the nation, the Sunday School movement provided materials including youth-oriented hymnals for immigrant children in the US. C.J. Heppe collected and organized German lyrics, including the three-verse ‘Stille Nacht’ and made them available to various Christian groups. The singing of the alternative lyrics is thus a remnant of an aggressive movement of evangelical Christianity in America which eventually reached Mennonite congregations (and in some cases causing disagreements and divisions within the church)—and yet it is more than that: what had started as a children’s version of ‘Stille Nacht’ remains a childhood Christmas memory to a few of our congregation members. To keep that memory alive, all three verses are printed here:
Stille Nacht ! Heil’ge Nacht!
Glänzende Pracht Strahlt durch die Nacht;
Licht statt Nacht Hat gebracht,