Friday, December 12, 2014

A Baltic Christmas Day 12: We’re not singing the same song, but we are

Today on Day Twelve of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas we welcome Associate Professor of Baltic Studies at University of Washington, Guntis Šmidchens. Head of the Baltic Studies program there, prof. Šmidchens is the recipient of the Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana (Maarjamaa Risti teenetemärk) from the Republic of Estonia, the Cross of Recognition, 4th Class, by the government of Latvia and is the author of The Power of Song: Nonviolent National Culture in the Baltic Singing Revolution.

We’re not singing the same song, but we are.

If you’ve ever celebrated Christmas away from your family or country, you know that hearing the familiar Christmas melody, “Silent Night,” can be a comforting experience. “They’re not that different, after all… They sing the same song as we do!” Surely Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians, and along with them the other people of Northern Europe, have similar feelings when they sing this song?

On the one hand, they do sing the same song, imagining a silent nighttime scene of a mother and her sleeping child whose birth is announced to shepherds by angel song; a feeling of great love encompasses all.

But different pictures stream through Baltic minds as they sing. In Lithuanian, the baby is smiling; in Estonian he breathes on Mary’s lap, but in Latvian, he sleeps in a manger. And in Lithuanian his mother is awake alone, while in Estonian and Latvian, Joseph and Mary are both awake (notice, by the way that the English, German and Russian versions don’t mention Joseph by name, either!). Latvians and Lithuanians hear many angels singing, but in Estonian, a single angel’s voice announces Christ’s birth to the shepherds.

Visual images carry only part of the message. There are also theological differences – these are not deep schisms, but still, it is significant that Lithuanians state that God has become the small child; in Latvian, God is still up in the sky, allowing the shepherds to hear angels, while in Estonian, His fatherly grace is the message. Lithuanians describe the event in the third person, while Latvians and Estonians turn to address their deity directly – Latvians speak to God’s son, while Estonians talk to God Himself. Lithuanians, by the way, do not mention themselves in the hymn’s text, unlike their Baltic neighbors: If we sing in Latvian, then “we” enter the song in its very last line, where Christ was born for “us”; in Estonian, God’s message of mercy comes to “us,” and then singers call out to the congregation, “Let us sing!”

I hope I’ve translated details accurately; please correct me if you see things differently. A point I want to make in conclusion is that even if at first glance Balts appear to sing this song in trilingual unison, my close reading of parallel texts shows differences in how each of the three nations experiences Christmas Eve. On that silent night, all of these images rise heavenward in a beautiful, rich harmony of voices and feelings, marveling at the great secret of divine love glimmering in a tiny baby’s face, hoping for an age of peace to come to the world. 


Klusa nakts, svēta nakts!
Visi dus, nomodā
Vēl ir Jāzeps un Marija
Kūtī Dāvida pilsētā,
Jēzus silītē dus.

Klusa nakts, svēta nakts!
Ganiem Dievs novēl pats
Dzirdēt eņģeļus slavējam,
Tuvu, tālu skandinām:
Kristus, glābējs, ir klāt!

Klusa nakts, svēta nakts!
Dieva Dēls, Tava acs
Mirdz mums dievišķā mīlestībā;
Nu ir dvēsele pestīta,
Jo Tu dzimis par mums.


Silent night, holy night!
Everybody sleeps, awake
Still are Joseph and Marija
In a barn in the city of David
Jesus sleeps in a manger.

Silent night, holy night!
To the shepherds God himself allows
To hear the angels praising,
Near and far calling out:
Christ, savior has arrived!

Silent Night, holy night!
Son of God, Your eye
Glimmers to us in divine love;
The soul is now saved,
Because you were born for us.


Tyli naktis, šventa naktis,
Viskas miega, tik dar vis
Motinėlė ten budi viena,
Kūdikis su meilia šypsena,
Ilsisi miega ramiai.

Tyli naktis, šventa naktis,
Pildos dieviška mintis.
Viešpats tapęs mažu vaikeliu
Žada sieloms malonių gausių
Savo šventu gimimu.

Tyli naktis, šventa naktis,
Vyksta meilės paslaptis.
Angelų giesmė skamba nakčia,
Nešdama piemenims žinią šią:
Jau Išganytojas čia!


Silent night, holy night,
Everything sleeps, still only
A dear mother watches there alone,
A baby with a tender smile
Rests, sleeps calmly.

Silent night, holy night
The divine thought is fulfilled
The lord has become a small child
Promises to souls many graces
With his own holy birth.

Silent night, holy night,
The secret of love is taking place
The hymn of angels resounds in the night,
Carrying this news to the shepherds:
The Savior is already here!


Püha öö, õnnistud öö!
Kõik on maas rahu sees.
Joosep valvab ja Marial sääl
Hingab lapsuke põlvede pääl.
Maga, patuste rõõm!

Püha öö, õnnistud öö!
Ingli hääl välja pääl
Laulab rõõmustes: Halleluuja!
Annab teada ka karjastele:
Kristus sündinud teil!

Püha öö, õnnistud öö!
Kes Sa meil’ ilmutand
Isa armu, mis õnnistust toob,
Rahupõlve maailmale loob.
Laulgem halleluuja!


Holy night, blessed night!
All in the land is in peace,
Joseph stands watch and Maria has
A small child breathing on her knees (=lap)
Sleep, joy of sinners!

Holy night, blessed night!
The voice of the angel outside above
Sings in joy: Halleluia!
And gives the news to shepherds too:
Christ is born for you!

Holy night, blessed night!
You who have revealed to us
fatherly grace which brings blessing,
Creates an age of peace for the world.
Let us sing Halleluia!

Thank you Gunti! Who would have imagined there is such variation within this song of only three verses! To find out more about the Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian programs at the University of Washington please visit the Department of Scandinavian Studies website, and Guntis’s book The Power of Song: Nonviolent National Culture in the Baltic Singing Revolution is available on Tomorrow on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas it’s time for another Latvian recipe - zaķu austiņas!


  1. How awesome - an article that covers all three Baltics, and in such an interesting way. Paldies, Gunti! I do like the "secret of love" line in the Lithuanian version.

  2. How wonderfully lyrical, brālīt! I love the nuances that bind us all together, and I love the nuances that distinguish us from each other! This post reminds me of performances at the Museum of Science and Industry, where our story ends with "Silent Night", and the narrator inviting everyone to join in - each in his own language. And the melody blends all the foreign words to the same understanding!


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