The spirituality of Christmas has been heedlessly stripped away by the Caesars of our age ... It was playing on the wireless last week, Justin Bieber's version of Silent Night, and no matter how soppy the singer, the song still cuts, every time, like love, to the quick. There are always tears in the tune and a lifetime in its lines.
Silent Night is the song of Christmas. There's so much inside it. The melody floats and soars and lives in the Gothic nave of our imagination, stirring something in us we'd forgotten was there. Memories, recollections, fragments of a life full felt and flawed; stained-glass windows, the smell of Christmas lillies and fresh pine needles, Christmas cards on a mantelpiece, Nativity plays, cotton wool beards, jelly beans in a sock. Little things, big things, anythings and everythings, it holds them all in its aching arc.
Silent Night is our own history whispering to us. And it's been the whisper of the world as well for nearly two centuries. Millions of people will sing it this year, as they do every year, in a hundred thousand places and 142 different languages, together, alone, alone together, each making their brief pilgrimage to that part of us where some faint imagining of the divine resides.
Silent Night or, more correctly, Stille Nacht, was first sung 193 years ago, on Christmas Eve, 1818, in the little village church at Oberndorf in Austria. The priest, Father Joseph Mohr, wrote the words and his friend Franz Gruber, who was a teacher, composed the tune. There was no organ in the church on that first night. Father Mohr had a guitar and liked to play it, so he used that instead.
Silent Night, in a host of tongues, has shaped the meaning we give to the events we've ordained ever since. The words we best know were written in 1859 by the Second Bishop of Florida, John Freeman Young. But the melody has a language of its own, universal, mysterious, translated by feelings, not by thought. That's why it catches us so fiercely and why it always has, through all of those murderous years in a world most often more Bedlam than Bethlehem.
Silent Night was the song all three armies sang together, muddy soldiers in shell-shocked trenches, on Christmas Eve in 1914, before they left their dug-outs and walked through the wire to play soccer in the blasted tracts of no-man's land. Twenty-five years later, it would have stirred the ceilings of churches in Berlin and London, Auckland and Rome.
"Silent Night. Heil'ge nacht
All is calm, einsam wacht
Nur das traute loch, mother and child
Holder knab' im, so tender and mild
Sclafe in himlischer Ruh!
Sleep in heavenly peace."
In a footnote in Rolf Hochhuth's play The Representative, there's a description of a concentration camp commandant who, at the end of a day spent overseeing the logistics of slaughter, would come home for his tea, then sit in his chair and weep while his daughter played Mozart or Bach or Silent Night on the piano.
And on that pinhead dances the awful ambivalence of us. That's all of us, mind, without exception or denial.
In this Age of Victims it is not seemly to speak of evil, but it lives, it lives in us all, a murmur, a whim, an impulse, as a thought or a deed, tiny murder or monstrous act.
So many echoes, so many contradictions; look hard enough and you'll find them all in Silent Night. But it's not the song that shames us, it's the singers; sinner saints, grievous angels, the world's best beasts, captive to our failings, yet driven to better them. That's why the song matters. And why the season matters too.
Christmas is a stock-take of sorts - if we allow it. It's a chance to look at the gaps in the map of ourselves, the uncharted bits, the courses not taken and journeys not made, the fears given succour the opportunities spurned. From time to time, and this, by its nature, is such a time, we should check our own moral compass and see where we sit on the spectrum of our expectations.
But that will happen only if we acknowledge the character and history of Christmas and allow some part of the holy day into the holiday. And that's all but gone now. The spirituality of Christmas has been heedlessly stripped away by the Caesars of our age, who would have no rendering except to themselves. Officially, like or not, this is still a Christian country, yet our politicians - and the media they control on our behalf - cannot summon the will to make any reference to 2000 years of tradition and belief. We have come to a contrary pass when those who assert the sanctity of taonga in one breath will so casually forsake it in the next.
Still, Silent Night survives. To goad, comfort, challenge and console. As memory and star, it is the song of Christmas. Sing it.