The Story of “O Holy Night”

(“O Holy Night” is my favorite Christmas carol. Both the music and the words are incredibly moving. The background to this familiar Christmas song is intriguing. Most of the following story is based on research done by scholars interested in religious musicology. There may be some debate and questions regarding specific details. Even if some of the story of this beloved carol is based more on legend than fact, the origin and history of this exquisite song provide an interesting and ironic background which most of us would find illuminating.)

Placide Cappau de Roquemaure, the commissionaire of wines in a small French town, is the author of “O Holy Night” (although he entitled the song “Cantique de Noel”). Cappeau, widely known for his poetry, was asked in 1847 by the parish priest to write a poem for Christmas Mass. The commissionaire was surprised at the request since he rarely attended church, but he happily agreed to write the poem. He wrote “Cantique de Noel” on a coach trip to Paris and based his poem on Luke’s nativity story. 

He decided to ask his friend Adolphe Charles Adams to write music for his poem so it could be sung on Christmas Eve. The talented Adams had written works for orchestras and ballets in Berlin, St. Petersburg, and London. He was thus imminently qualified to write a musical accompaniment to Cappeau’s poem, but he faced one problem—he was Jewish in ancestry and faith. Nevertheless, he created an original score for Cappeau’s poem which greatly pleased the poet and the parish priest. The song was performed at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in 1847.

Quickly the song became a hit and was embraced by the Catholic Church in France and was sung and performed in other Catholic Christmas services. However, after a short period of time, the Catholic Church deemed “Cantique de Noel” unfit for church services because of its supposed lack of musical taste and “total absence of the spirit of religion.” Of course, these reasons were bogus. The real reasons for the rejection of this beautiful song were twofold. First, Cappeau had abandoned the church because of its indifference to the plight of the poor and had joined the socialist movement in France. Secondly, church authorities discovered that Adolphe Adams was a Jew. The church rejected this lovely Christmas song, but the French people continued to cherish and sing it.  

A decade later an American writer, John Sullivan Dwight, introduced this wonderful Christmas song to the United States. Dwight was an ardent abolitionist who saw something in the song which spoke to the Christian obligation to abolish slavery. He strongly identified with the lines of the third verse of this song: “Truly he taught us to love one another, his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease.” Dwight published his English translation of “Cantique de Noel” in his magazine, and the song quickly found favor in the United States, especially in the North during the Civil War.

But the story of “O Holy Night” continues. On Christmas Eve, 1871, during the fierce fighting between the French and German armies during the Franco-Prussian War, a French soldier climbed out of his muddy trench totally unarmed and began singing “Cantique de Noel.” After he had sung all three verses, a German soldier climbed out of his trench and sang the German carol “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” For the next twenty-four hours fighting stopped as men on both sides observed a temporary peace in honor of Christmas day and the birth of the Prince of Peace. Some historians suggest that this event played a part in the French church once again embracing “Cantique de Noel” in its Christmas worship services. 

Long after Adams was dead and while Cappeau and Dwight were old men, the story of “O Holy Night” gained a new chapter. On Christmas Eve 1906, Reginald Fessenden, a thirty-three-year-old university professor and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison did something most thought impossible. Using a new type of generator, Fessenden spoke into a microphone and for the first time in history, a human’s voice was broadcast over the airwaves. Fessenden read these words: “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” Shocked radio operators on ships and astonished wireless owners at newspapers were astounded as their normal, coded impulses heard over tiny speakers were interrupted by a reading of the nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. To the few who heard the broadcast, it must have seemed a miracle as they heard a voice somehow transmitted over vast distances. 

Fessenden was probably unaware of the sensation he was creating in offices and on ships. After finishing his recitation of the Lucan account of the birth of Jesus, he picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night,” the first music ever sent through the air via radio waves. “O Holy Night” had found a new medium that would take it all around the world. 

Since that first performance of “O Holy Night” at a small Christmas Eve Mass in 1847, this beloved song has been sung countless time in churches in every corner of the world. And since the moment a handful of people first heard it played over the radio, the carol has gone on to become one of the most recorded and played spiritual songs of the last century. This incredible work—requested by a forgotten parish priest, written by a poet who would later split with the church because it had abandoned its Lord’s mission, given soaring music by a Jewish composer (a Jewish brother of Jesus), and brought to America to serve as much as a tool to spotlight the sinful nature of slavery as to tell the story of the birth of a Savior—this song has become one of the most beautiful, inspired pieces of music ever created. From a faith perspective, one could guess that God rejoices in all the unfolding ironies of history which bear witness to a love, justice, and truth which simply will not go away. 

Tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.