I've always hated “Silent Night.”

The whiny tune, the maudlin lyrics, the sappy sentimentalism it evokes. Its unassailable preeminence in the Christmas canon. Ugh.

I also think that some texts are best left unreclaimed. “Our Mother who art in Heaven....” “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound/that saved a witch like me....” “The little lord Sun God, asleep in the hay....”

Kill me now, please.

Given these two facts, one would expect that I would categorically reject my teacher Tony Kelly's pagan “Silent Night.” And, for the most part, I do.

And yet.


 Silent Night


Silent night, holy night:

All is dark, dim the light.

Still lies the Mother, and still lies the wild,

Wistfully longing to suckle the child

Stirring now in her womb,

Stirring his feet in her womb.


Silent Earth, holy Earth:

Now she lies, soon she'll give birth.

Then will the longest night be flown away,

Then will her loved one grow strong day by day,

Stirring now in her womb,

Stirring his feet in her womb.


Silent queen, holy queen,

Wrapped in her cloak of green,

Sparkling all over with frost shining bright,

Peaceful and vast in the silver starlight.

Stirs the child in her womb,

Stirs in the deep of her womb.


Silent she lies, holy she lies;

Dark the hills where her Sun shall rise.

All of her heart she gives to this birth,

All our love we give to the Earth:

All for the child in her womb,

All for he stirs in her womb.


Yes, it's clunky (“All is dark, dim the light”), with mis-stressed words (“peaceful and vast in the silver star-light”) and infelicitous phrasings (“Then will the longest night be flown away”).

And yet. And yet.

Without (for the most part) sinking to the sappy, it preserves the tenderness and the stillness of the original, two qualities that have surely given the carol its best-loved, iconic status.

In some ways, Kelly actually improves on the original. The repetition, with variation, of silent...holy at the beginning of each verse lends a unity to the composition that Gruber's lyrics don't have.

And then there's the picture that he paints: the stillness before the birth.

In the raucous lead-up to Yule, who has not gazed out over the silent winter landscape and felt that here, after all, lies the still, silent center of it all. Earth and Sun: the irreducible Solstice.

Certainly one of the things that's so appealing about Christmas is its specificity: the baby in the barn, the feed-box, the animals; shepherds and gold and a star. Pagan Yules could do with more local detailing of this sort, and this Kelly provides, in his usual foresightful way.

I love—for example—that the Sun is “stirring his feet in her womb.” It's a detail simultaneously quotidian and cosmic. Babies in utero kick; every mother (to her discomfort) knows that.

But this is the Sun. The Sun walks. Soon—even on the day of his birth—he'll walk from one vast end of the sky to the other, and he does this every day. Even before he's born, he can't wait to begin: stirring his feet in her womb.

And Earth herself, wrapped in her green cloak (Kelly lived in Wales; here in the North Country, it's a white cloak, sure enough): waiting, contemplative, before her night's labors begin.

Here's Kelly's brilliance: to ask—as it behooves every pagan to ask—If Earth and Sun were Persons, how—as Persons—would They be?

“Dark the hills where her Sun shall rise”: here Personification and non-personification operate simultaneously, as they do—as they must—when we're speaking of the Elder Gods, both dizzying, and profound.

Ultimately, in my opinion, the song "Silent Night" is simply too iconic to be reclaimable. Any attempt to do so will read either as satire or as derivative. It's theirs; it will never be ours. If you like it, just sing it as is. (You don't have to mean it.) Let us leave "Silent Night" to its own (such as it is) integrity.

Well, there we are. Tony Kelly was a lonely man. He was so far out ahead of the rest of us that he couldn't help but feel the isolation of the mountaintop. His paganized "Silent Night", in the end, fails. I don't sing it, I don't teach it, and I don't think that it should become part of the Received Tradition.

Yet even in his straying, Kelly shows the way. I hope that some day we will have the Yule carols that manage to do what Kelly does here.

Minus the cultural luggage.


You can see Tony Kelly's Silent Night in its original ritual context—the Pagan Movement in Britain and Ireland's Yule rite—here.