STLT#252, Stille Nacht

POST UPDATED 2:15PM, 6/9/17

Wow, these Unitarians are a surly bunch.

Yesterday’s post brought up a lot of discussion on Facebook (visit my timeline and scroll down a bit) about our approaches to theology and whether we are/were guilty of weakening the Christian theology of carols, and what the remedies are. We even heard from a member of the Hymnal Commission, who talked about how difficult and nuanced the work in 1993 was, and reminding us that the Commission was made up of eight people who wrestled for months and whose “decisions did not create an obligatory canon.” And knowing what folks in our congregations had been wrestling with (in many cases, hard transitions from other Christian – particularly Roman Catholic – denominations), “There were a lot more pastoral and liturgical reasons for making certain of our decisions than theological.”

This is important for all of us – me included – to remember. It’s a helpful frame for those times when I want to quibble with theological issues in hymns, especially traditionally Christian hymns.

And it’s a good thing to remember as we look at today’s lyrics, the original first verse in German, and a literal translation of verses 1 and 2. In this, we can see that even our beloved English lyrics are an interpretation:

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.
Alles schlaft, einsam wacht
nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lokkigen Haar,
schlaf in himmlischer Ruh,
schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Quiet night, holy night,
all asleep! Save tonight
watch a dear and holy pair
their sweet boy with curly hair,
sleep in heavenly peace,
sleep in heavenly peace.

Quiet night, holy night,
shepherds first know the light
through the angel allelu,
bringing news to me, to you:
Christ who frees is here,
Christ who frees is here.

At this point my only quibble is longing for all of the German lyrics and associated literal translation. Because this is beautiful.

EDIT: After posting this on Facebook, Michael Tino asked Hymnal Commission member Mark Belletini about the translation; here is what he said (included with permission):

It was done by a German-born woman in the congregation in Hayward who insisted on being anonymous. She did not like the English version, which we sang every year from memory, first verse only as the candles burned in the racks we used. It bothered her not to sing about the curly hair, which the German clearly says. So she offered to translate it.

She thought the word ordinarily translated as “Savior” had been cheapened by the TV evangelists who were all over the place in those days. She had seen the concentration camps opened, the emaciated survivors freed and she said that is a better image of the German word. I concurred, saying that our Christian Socinian ancestors understood Savior not in the Evangelisch way of bloody death but in the practicing of the Sermon on the Mount. So I took her version to the other seven [on the Hymnal Commission] and they loved it.

We knew with the candles, few would sing it, but only the first verse of the traditional English. But from time to time we in Hayward would sing the original lullaby (with guitar of course, as was done originally) It made our German translator especially happy. I asked those who knew German to sing it in German first. Then Renate’s translation.

Makes me want to use this version all the time now. Now back to the original post:

I will note that when possible, I like to have a soloist or a choir sing the first verse in German to begin the candle lighting ritual at Christmas Eve – it goes German verse, sung – spoken intro with instrumental (guitar preferred) or hummed underscore – everyone sing in English while light is passed. It’s a gorgeous framing and makes that special moment even more special.

Anyway. I’m gonna chew on the difference between “Christ who frees is here” and “Christ the savior is born” for a while…. have a good spring day.

One Comment

  1. I speak German, and I know that the original words at the end of the verse are “Christ der Retter is da, Christ der Retter ist da.” Literal translation: “Christ the savior [rescuer] is there.” FWIW. Do with it what you will.

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