The Story Behind “O Holy Night”

If you ask ten adults to name some of the favorite things about the Christmas season, most all of them will list the music of Christmas in their top five. Those who don’t are deficient in understanding and soul, and should be exiled from civilized society. 

Now, to be clear, when I talk about the music of Christmas I am not thinking of such unmitigated tragedies as Santa Baby, Last Christmas or Christmas Shoes. You could fill the Grand Canyon with horrendous Christmas cd’s, and would likely run out of room. Any artist or band that sells more than a dozen copies of their first album is soon persuaded by a soulless manager with visions of dollar signs dancing in his head to put out a Christmas CD. And if you’ve bought or listened to “Merry Christmas from the Brady Bunch”, “Roseanne Barr Sings the Christmas Classics” or Justin Beiber’s “Under the Mistletoe” then I want you to lay down, curl up into the fetal position covered with a blanket, and reflect on how your life turned out this way.  

No, I am thinking, and hopefully when you are also, of the great Carols that have been handed down to us for hundreds of years, with hauntingly beautiful tunes and wondrous lyrics. The wonder of advent, God appearing in human flesh, has inspired the pen and piano of such luminaries as Christina Rosetti, Fredrick Handel, and Charles Wesley. 

But some beloved carols have less august authorship, like O Holy Night. But I can’t help but think that in some ways the story of this carol embodies some wonderful truths about Christmas.

 

Our story begins in the French town of Roquemaure at the end of 1843. The church organ had recently been renovated. To celebrate the event, the parish priest wanted to have a new poem written for the Christmas Eve service where the organ would be introduced. But who in the village could write such a poem?

Placide Cappeau

Placide Cappeau was the son of a winemaker and barrel-maker, and was destined to follow his father in the family business but after a childhood accident that cost him his left hand, he turned to the university, receiving a degree in literature and law. Eventually following in his father’s footsteps, to an extent, he became a merchant of wines and spirits. However, his focus in life was literature. He was known in the village as a fine amateur poet. He was also known for something else: he did not really like religion or the Catholic Church (the only church he knew). Like most everyone in town, he would have identified as a Christian, but was more attached to socialism than the Church.

Nonetheless, the priest asked Cappeau to write the poem, and the latter, surprised but sensing the honor of the task, agreed. On a long and dusty carriage ride to Paris, using the gospel of Luke as his guide, Cappeau imagined witnessing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Thoughts of being present on the blessed night inspired him. By the time he arrived in Paris, “Cantique de Noel” had been completed.

Cappeau decided that his “Cantique de Noel” was not just a poem, but a song in need of a master musician’s hand. Not musically inclined himself, the poet turned to one of his friends, Adolphe Charles Adams, for help.

Adolphe Charles Adams

The son of a well-known classical musician, Adolphe had studied in the Paris conservatoire. His talent and fame brought requests to write works for orchestras and ballets all over the world. Yet the lyrics that his friend Cappeau gave him must have challenged the composer in a fashion unlike anything he received from London, Berlin, or St. Petersburg. For you see, Adolphe Adams was a Jew.

For Adolphe the words of “Cantique de Noel” represented a day he didn’t celebrate and a man he did not view as the son of God. Nevertheless, moved by friendship and the beautiful lyrics of the poem, Adams quickly went to work, attempting to marry an original score to Cappeau’s beautiful words. Adams’ finished work pleased both poet and priest. The song was performed just three weeks later at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Literal English Translation of Cantinque de Noel

Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour,
When God as man descended unto us
To erase the stain of original sin
And to end the wrath of His Father.
The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Saviour.

People, kneel down, await your deliverance.
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!

May the ardent light of our Faith
Guide us all to the cradle of the infant,
As in ancient times a brilliant star
Guided the Oriental kings there.
The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;
O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,

It is to your pride that God preaches.
Bow your heads before the Redeemer! Bow your heads before the Redeemer!

The Redeemer has broken every bond

The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those whom iron had chained.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.

People, stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!

Initially, “Cantique de Noel” was wholeheartedly accepted by the church in France and the song quickly found its way into various Catholic Christmas services. But when Placide Cappeau walked away from the church and became a part of the socialist movement, and church leaders discovered that Adolphe Adams was a Jew, the song–which had quickly grown to be one of the most beloved Christmas songs in France–was suddenly and uniformly denounced by the church, who decried it as too secular. Yet even as the church tried to bury the Christmas song, the French people continued to sing it, and a decade later a reclusive American writer brought it to a whole new audience halfway around the world.

John Sullivan Dwight

Not only did this American writer–John Sullivan Dwight–feel that this wonderful Christmas songs needed to be introduced to America, he saw something else in the song that moved him beyond the story of the birth of Christ. An ardent abolitionist, Dwight strongly identified with the lines of the third verse: “He sees a brother where there was only a slave. This matched Dwight’s own view of slavery in the South. Published in his magazine, Dwight’s English translation (really more of a paraphrase) of O Holy Night quickly found favor in America, especially in the North during the Civil War.

 

John Sullivan Dwight’s version

O holy night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Fall on your knees, Oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine,Oh night divine

Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming
Here come the wise men from Orient land
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger
In all our trials born to be our friend.

He knows our need, to our weaknesses no stranger,
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King, Before Him lowly bend!

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
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.

Legend has it that the French Catholic Church finally received the song back into its worship services after an encounter between French and German troops during the Franco-Prussian War. During a lull in fighting, a French soldier began singing “Cantique de Noel.” The Germans were so moved that they responded by singing one of Luther’s hymns. The “songfest” encouraged the soldiers to honor a truce for 24 hours on Christmas.

The end of this story involves the beginning of modern technology–the invention of the radio. On Christmas Eve, 1906, Reginald Fessenden (a former colleague of Thomas Edison) was experimenting with a microphone and the telegraph. Now in 1906 the only type of radios that existed were wireless transmitters that picked up code. Fessenden was tinkering in his office and proceeded to do something that had never been done before. He broadcast a human voice across the airwaves. Speaking into a microphone he’d rigged, Fessenden read Luke Chapter 2 from his Bible.

Reginald Fessenden

As he uttered the 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…” amazed radio operators on ships and over wireless code transmitters heard the Gospel being read through their speakers. Those who heard those first words over the radio recall that they thought they were witnessing a miracle.

Meanwhile, Fessenden had no idea who, if anyone, was hearing his broadcast. After completing his reading from the Gospel of Luke, he picked up his violin, sat close to his microphone, and played the familiar music to O Holy Night – making it the first song to ever be played over the airwaves.

 

For many people today, this is their favorite Christmas carol. The song written by a socialist wine merchant, set to music by a Jewish composer, banned by church leaders, kept alive by the French people, adopted by American abolitionists, sung by troops in the trenches, and the first song broadcast to the whole world by radio: O Holy Night.

Let’s close with this great rendition (though it totally leaves out the third verse):

30 thoughts on “The Story Behind “O Holy Night”

  1. I have a soft spot for Gesu Bambino myself.

    It might be partly inspired by the shepherds who played various kinds of Italian bagpipes outside Italian churches at Christmastime. They would stand around the creche and serenade the Christ Child and Mary (and anyone else who was around at the time).

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  2. Dana – exactly!

    I’ve assisted on translations of short texts about music from Brazilian Portuguese. The translator was very good, but so many references that wouldn’t be any big deal for Brazilians had to either be dropped or drastically rewritten for English-speaking readers. A ton of cultural context went out the window, sadly, but if we had tried to explain it, the texts would’ve been 3-5x longer and nobody would have taken the time to read them.

    While i like the English lyrics, they really are more of a variation on a theme than a translation. Which is fine, and knowing their background makes me more appreciative of both texts.

    I’ve gotta say, though, that hearing the French verses taken solo by a gifted singer…. wow. I’ve had the privilege to hear it that way a couple of times, and farmprefer the French text in a concert setting. Adolphe Adam did an amazing job of setting the text to music; the American version doesn’t work nearly as well, in that sense.

    I’d suggest hunting down a couple of recordings of each on Spotify and/or YouTube for the sake of comparison.

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  3. SUSAN, try some home-made beef broth – cook for a long time and refrigerate first and skim off the fat – and what’s left will help strengthen you

    after I had pneumonia a couple of years ago, that helped me a lot. Wish I could bring you some, but go ahead and try to make a pot of it – yes you can add onions, etc., but it’s the hot broth that helps so much

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  4. It has to be a Daguerrotype; it was very new in 1843 and had no competition until the 1860s.

    Daguerrotypes are unique images; the image becomes part of the metal base used for shooting the image.

    They can look very strange in person, as the 0late has to be tilted at various angles to see an entire image properly; or else anyone who’s looking at one kept in a display case has to make the adjustments by moving around a bit and looking at the plate from varying angles.

    It can be frustrating, depending on the size and position of a plate that’s on display.

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  5. It depends on the photographic process that was used for the original. Iirc, Daguerrotypes, which were brand-new at the time, did this mirror-image flip. But I’d need to find out if what we’re seeing here is a photo of a Daguerrotype, or one of the other photographic processes that sprang up in its wake. The 19th c. was remarkable that way – so much innovation in both the arts and sciences. In many cases, the latter had a direct and positive impact on the former. (Example: the invention and coomon use of metal tubes for oil paints led directly to the style of painting we know as Impressionism. For the very 1st time, it was possible to be outside to paint with oils and a smallish, portable easel. Monet, for example, could never have painted as he did if he had had to try and do it solely in the studio.)

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  6. It’s fine in the French original. Translation is always difficult, and the translation of poetry is far harder than that of most prose.

    Don’t judge the actual French text by a literal translation. If aynything, it kind of confuses the issue.

    Hey, Daniel, just a small thing, but the composer’s surname is Adam (no “s”). It’s easy for spell-check to “fix” things that weren’t misspelled to begin with. I used to miss things that had been “corrected” by WordPerfect, back when i was writing music reviews.

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  7. The Fesseden story, while possible, has no verification except for Fesseden himself. Could be true though.

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  8. I was just (as in 15 minutes ago) on a webinar with Anne. Had I seen this earlier I would have sent you a link

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  9. Thanks Christiane,
    Love the hug.
    My daughter has gone home. That is OK. I am managing.
    Dresssings come down today.
    I had forgotten how tired a person is after surgery.
    Susan

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  10. The beautiful ‘old’ hymns contain so much ‘theology’ that is more basic to the Body of Christ and I think must be much missed by us old folks. I remember hearing ‘O Holy Night’ sung at mass by our Church choir on Christmas Eve and I must have been about ten years old at the time. That memory is beautiful to me still.

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  11. Shout out to Susan in Australia. Hope all is as good as it can be. Is your daughter still with you and helping you?
    Sending hug.

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  12. Not sure how. Seems like that arm would still be coming out of that side of his body no matter which way the thing was facing what the heck do I know!

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  13. O Holy Night is my favorite Christmas song. I can listen to it any time of year and still get the chills. And when sung by Nat King Cole or Johnny Mathis, it moves into “Heavenly” territory.

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  14. Not just Baptist. I occasionally went with my dad to his Presbyterian church and the common “time to sing a hymn” mantra was, “First, second and fourth verses only.” I’m pretty sure I’ve never sung the third verse of any hymn, either.

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  15. Thanks, Daniel. This is not only one of my favorite carols, but also one of my favorite composition stories. (You may have been the victim of autocorrect sabotage; I believe the composer’s name is Adam, not Adams.) My other favorite composition story is that of Silent Night. Other favorite Carol is Gesu Bambino. Wonderful reminder of what Christmas is about, even for people who otherwise don’t think about it.

    Dana

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  16. Jon, it’s really, really difficult to translate poetry, especially if you need the translation to sync with the rhythm of a musical composition. You are going to end up with a lot of “paraphrase”, even with the best translation. (I’ve done some translating, trust me on this.) Sullivan’s is at the top for conveying meaning and fitting the music.

    Dana

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  17. Totally off topic, but I am reading Anne Bokma’s book My Year of Living Spiritually which I discovered here on Internet Monk. It’s wonderful!

    On topic, my daughter used to sing O Holy Night every Christmas in church (all three verses) but now she lives in another state and we can’t be together for Christmas because of COVID, so I am afraid it will be a sad Christmas indeed. It will always be one of my favorite Christmas songs.

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  18. That’s because the third verse was Abolitionist(TM).

    Remember how the Southern Baptists began, as Defenders of their Peculiar Institution of God-Given Animate Property.

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  19. Neat story. O Holy Night is my favorite Christmas song, though I’m glad the guy did a paraphrase and not a literal translation. In fact, I don’t know if I would call it a paraphrase as much as just the French song inspired the American one. If you want to hear it beautifully sung and with the third verse, look up Josh Groban singing it.

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  20. “though it totally leaves out the third verse’
    Coming from Baptist world, the thing that most surprised me about mainline churches is that they sing all the verses. I never sang the 3rd verse in a hymn growing up.

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  21. I don’t think it’s as popular in the UK as the US: I am not sure I’ve it heard it before, which is a shame, because it is beautiful.

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