In a series of “wonderfully awful” decisions which have seemingly sprung straight from the pages of ”How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, Dr. Seuss’ beloved mid century children’s story, the news broke on Friday, November 15, that “Silent Night” had been scrapped from the Dutch Catholic Churchs’ newly published song book (liedboek). One day later, in a brief, but well placed announcement in the “Nieuws” section of the NRC Handelsblad, readers learned that “Silent Night”, or “Stille Nacht”, as it is known in Dutch, was “redacted” by the Dutch bishops from the approved song list along with 300-400 other “traditional songs”. As is commonly known, the media, especially the Dutch media, is often dismissive, if not outright contemptuous, of the Catholic Church, so one must first ask, can it really be true? Has a surreptitious attempt been made to secretively silence the singing of “Silent Night”?
If asked, Norbertine monk, Joost Jansen, director of the Berne Abbey in Heeswijk-Dinther, where the song books are published, would likely respond positively. In fact, he already has. In recent interviews, he has cited a number of reasons for the bishops’ decision to scuttle the song, but is courageously singing it out, for there will be no silencing of the joy of “Silent Night” in his abbey during Advent!
The Christmas carol controversy shows no signs of being quelled. Two days ago, Bishop Jan Liesen of Breda, in an open letter published on the official website of the Roman Catholic Church (RKKerk.nl), clearly stated that “folk” songs require approval by both the Dutch Bishops Conference, presumably in the form of a valid decree, and the Holy See and that this has been the case since 2001. Conspicuously absent from the letter, however, is any reference to the “Directory on Popular Piety and Liturgy”, published by the Holy See’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments, which is available for review on the Holy See’s official website. To date—it seems that none of the parties weighing in on the matter have referred to the guidelines. In stark contrast to the various opinions being expressed locally, on the subject of traditional songs such as “Silent Night, Holy Night”; the directory, formally introduced by papal decree and in a 21 September, 2001 address by His Holiness, Bl. John Paul II, actively encourages the use of popular devotions and pious practices such as the singing of traditional songs during Advent. In fact, bishops have been called to take a “positive and encouraging stance with regard to popular religiosity, unless there are patently obvious reason to the contrary”.
While all of this may sound like “much ado about nothing”, serious singers should be asking, why has “Silent Night, Holy Night” become a subject of so much discussion? According to Michael Neureiter, President of the Silent Night Society , in a press release published electronically on the society’s website; Silent Night, is above all, a “Carol of Peace”. Nearly 200 years after the song was performed for the first time before an appreciative public; it has spread across the world and been translated into more than 300 languages and dialects. In the process, it has become a “fixed part of festivals and celebrations” during the Advent season. In 2011, the Silent Night Society successfully applied to UNESCO to have the song included on Austria’s national list of UNESCO’s Immaterial Cultural Heritage. More recently, the society applied for the European Cultural Heritage Label, an EU initiative, which in the words of the Society’s spokesmen Michael Neureiter and Eva Reinecker, “has evolved to commend historical sites and places of cultural interest, which symbolize and emphasize European integration, the ideals and history of the European Union”—reason enough, it would seem for the “universality” of this cherished Christmas carol to warrant safeguarding it as a symbol of both Christian and cultural heritage by continuing to include it in the Dutch song book.